Special Assignment

The I-Team takes the plunge to learn why so many people die in our rivers

CREATED Apr 24, 2013 - UPDATED: Apr 24, 2013

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MILWAUKEE - The Milwaukee River downtown looks calm and peaceful on a Spring day, but it's the same river that has taken the lives of too many.

It took UWM student Nick Wilcox on New Year's Eve, and a little more than a year ago 28-year-old Tom Hecht also drowned in the waters of the Milwaukee River.

Both men were well above the legal alcohol limit.  They hit the water, and never had a chance.

Dr. Stephen Hargarten works in the ER at Froedtert Hospital.  He warns, "We need to address this challenging issue that is a significant contributor to deaths and injuries in our communities and across the state of Wisconsin."

There are people who do make it out of alive.  Many times it's thanks to an elite, highly trained crew--the Milwaukee Fire Department's Dive Rescue Team.  With at least 100 dive runs a year, they stay very busy.  That also means more people being sent to emergency rooms, like Froedtert.

"These are not accidents, these are predictable events, it's predictable that individuals are being overserved in taverns, stumble out of taverns, and fall into bodies of water," Dr. Hargarten explains.

TMJ4 decided to take a much closer look at the problem.  So reporter Tom Murray suited up, and got ready to take the plunge.

Tom:  "Why is this a demonstration that you want people to see?"

Captain Chris Schutte:  "Rivers can be dangerous.  Regardless of whether we have low water or high water, people don't respect the potential dangers rivers can pose."

We chose the area near Water Street and McKinley to do this controlled experiment.

Tom:  "All these bars, and the river so close, is that a dangerous combination?"

Capt. Schutte:  "I believe...Yes.  I believe so.  Alcohol and cold, dark, moving water are not a good mix."

After some careful planning, it was time for Tom to get in the water.

The dive team directed Tom to maintain in the current.  Then, after a couple minutes, a rescuer went to get Tom.  Within just a few short minutes Tom was back to shore, and freezing.

When Tom got out of the water the Captain Schutte asked him, "It looked like you were swimming, and just breaking even with the current.  You weren't going forward, and I noticed you weren't going back."  Tom replied, "I wasn't swimming as hard as I possibly could, but it is, it is a battle to swim upstream."

Tom added, "I can understand how this would be extremely frightening, and someone would panic hitting the water, that cold hitting your body, and not knowing where you're gonna get out."

That's the same panic Nick Wilcox and Tom Hecht likely felt, and that the dive rescue team wants to prevent--by raising awareness.

Rescuer Cameron Borchert explains, "We need that information in the public's mind--be careful when you're on the water.  Respect the water.  If you don't respect it it's going to bite you."

It's important to note that if a person does fall in the river, the best chance for survival is to not fight the current.  People instinctively want to swim back to the spot where they fell in.  Instead, you should let your body go with the current, and slowy angle yourself towards shore.