By Tim Potter
Wichita Eagle – March 4, 2015
Photo by Jerry Siebenmark. Click on photo to view full-size image.
At the moment that Erika Owen fell into the icy pond at Chisholm Creek Park on Sunday, trying to rescue her dog, almost everything worked against her and the firefighters trying to save her, a fire official says.
The first responding crew came from a fire station only a mile away. Even though that station happens to be the county’s water rescue team, which has trained in icy conditions, the cold and other circumstances were too much to overcome, county fire Division Chief Carl Cox said Wednesday.
The pond at the park, which is north of K-96 on the west side of Woodlawn, is in the shape of an hour glass and about 150 feet wide where Owen fell in.
Owen, a 28-year-old who worked with children at City Life Church, was about 75 feet out on the pond, Cox said. Because Owen was petite, Cox thinks she was able to walk to the middle of the pond before she fell through the ice.
“She really got out there so far that it was too far to turn back,” he said.
When Owen fell through the ice, she was likely in water over her head, Cox said.
It’s natural for people, especially those who aren’t trained for emergencies, to feel an impulse to go out onto ice when they want to save a pet they love, said Cox, who has been a county firefighter for 28 years.
The first firefighters on the scene had to park a quarter-mile from the pond and carry at least 100 pounds of gear over a muddy, snowy trail. They were approaching the shore when Owen went under the last time, and they immediately tried to reach her, Cox said.
When county firefighters train on ice rescues, Cox said, the idea is to slide out onto the ice, if possible, because it’s faster. But in this case, the ice was too thin, so as a firefighter in a cold-weather scuba-diving drysuit tried to slide, he kept breaking through the ice. He had to half-wade and half-swim through one chunk of ice after another, which slowed the effort.
The ice over the murky water was about a half-inch to 1.5 inches thick, white and cloudy, the color of “soft ice,” Cox said. Clear ice is stronger.
A drysuit keeps a firefighter dry but not warm, and the cold was overwhelmingly exhausting, said Cox, who also went to the scene that afternoon.
Later that day, two firefighters in the rescue attempt were treated for hypothermia.
The danger of icy water is that “it’s just paralyzing,” Cox said. It stops muscles from working, takes a person’s breath away and causes him or her to become disoriented and, within seconds, incapacitated.
They found Owen’s body in water that was 6 to 8 feet deep. The body of the dog she was trying to save was about 10 to 12 feet from her.
Ice-covered water is so dangerous, especially in Kansas, where the weather changes often and unpredictably, that when firefighters practice rescues on ice, they carefully pick the spot, Cox said. They take all kinds of precautions, including tying themselves off with rope, just in case – because they never know when they might break through.
As part of standard procedure, the Fire Department brought in professional counselors to help firefighters at Station 37 deal with the rescue attempt, Cox said.
“We do feel pain,” he said. “We do feel sympathy and empathy and compassion.”