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Taking the plunge: Thin ice rescue

CREATED Jan 31, 2014 - UPDATED: Jan 31, 2014

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MILWAUKEE - We see the scenes all too often here in southeastern Wisconsin-- emergency crews responding after people have fallen through thin ice.

Captain Chris Schutte is with the Milwaukee Fire Department. He explains, "Anything dangerous, seems like kids especially, are attracted to it, and thin ice is no different."

Captain Schutte heads up the fire department's Dive Rescue Team. He approached us to do a story about the dangers of thin ice.

"Country-wide, people fall through the ice and die, so I thought this would be an opportunity to get the message out to the community," he says.

This isn't your usual ice safety story. This time, TODAY'S TMJ4'S Jesse Ritka is the one getting rescued! The dive team set up a controlled rescue situation on the Milwaukee River in the popular Third Ward.

Jesse says, "I'm a little bit nervous about walking out on the ice and then just randomly letting myself fall through."

Matt LeBlanc works at a restaurant on the river, and admits he's seen people do some stupid things on the ice. He recalls, "Last winter I saw 2 guys walk out, and I just had to look away--too scary, didn't want to see them go through."

"It's been cold but you can't always assume you're gonna have good ice, especially on the river with the water moving underneath and water levels fluctuating, that's going to weaken the ice," Captain Schutte warns.

Jesse says she could feel that weakening of the ice under my feet as I set out on the frozen river. Then, all of a sudden... Jesse falls in with no warning! As she tried to get out of the freezing water... the ice continued to crumble beneath her. Luckily the dive team gave her ice picks to grip the ice, and eventually pull herself out.

"Even when I was trying to get out of the ice, I could feel my fingers getting colder and colder, and I've got these dry suit gloves on and as I was doing that I could even tell I was losing some of that momentum and losing movement," Jesse says right after the plunge.

She rescued herself that time. Captain Schutte says many people aren't that lucky. "She avoided what's called a cold water shock--which is you fall in, your body gets into that cold water instantly, and it's just a... you take that deep breath in, you start to hyperventilate, there's a chance you could take water in your lungs when you take that initial breath, it shocks your system."

During another scenario, Jesse fell through the ice, and that time the dive team came out to rescue her. In Jesse's case, she had a whole team of rescuers ready to save her life, and it was still a scary feeling.

"I can't imagine what it would be like without all the layers I was wearing, and then trying to get out, it was.. every time I put my weight up on my arms I would fall through again," Jesse says.

Captain Schutte knows people in Wisconsin love the outdoors, but it all comes down to some simple common sense. "If you're not 100% sure that you have safe ice that's going to hold your weight... you need to stay off it."

Remember, the pattern we've seen this winter of extreme cold, followed by some brief warming makes the ice very vulnerable. Jesse can now tell us from experience--thin ice will crack before you even know it!

Click here to learn more about ice safety from the DNR.