OAK HARBOR, Ohio – A miles-wide ice floe broke away Saturday from Lake Erie's shoreline, trapping more than 130 fishermen offshore, some for as long as four hours. One man fell into the water and later died of an apparent heart attack.
A Coast Guard spokesman, Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, said 134 people had been plucked from the ice by late afternoon. Rescuers in helicopters lowered baskets onto the ice, and people climbed in and were lifted to safety. Others boarded air boats that glided across the ice.
"We get people out here who don't know how to read the ice," Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said. "What happened here today was just idiotic. I don't know how else to put it."
Click below for an icy interview Sheriff Bratton gave to CNN that blamed the fisherman their expensive and preventable rescue operation. Bratton appears about a minute and 45 seconds into the clip:
The day began with fishermen setting down wooden pallets to create a bridge over a crack in the ice so they could roam farther out on the lake. But the planks fell into the water when the ice shifted, stranding the fishermen about 1,000 yards offshore.
Leslie Love, 65, of New Albany, Ohio, died of an apparent heart attack after his snowmobile broke through the ice while he was searching for a safe place to cross back to shore, according to the Ottawa County sheriff's office.
Love collapsed after he was helped back onto solid ice, the sheriff's office said. A relative performed CPR until a helicopter transported Love to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Ice on western sections of Lake Erie was up to 2 feet thick Saturday, National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Randel said. The ice cracked as temperatures rose and winds of up to 35 mph pushed on the ice.
"The crack blew up," said Chuck Hasty of Holland, Ohio, who has been out on the ice all week. "It was a matter of a minute or so."
When fishermen realized late Saturday morning that the ice had broken away, they began to debate the best way off. Some chose to sit and wait for authorities, while others headed east in search of an ice bridge.
"I don't know how many snowmobiles and four-wheelers took off like a gold rush to the east," Hasty said.
Fishermen closer to the ice break used their cell phones to warn those farther from shore.
For entertainment while they waited, one angler dropped a recently hooked walleye — the target catch of the season — back into the water as a group gathered to watch it swim, said fisherman David Hudzinski of Muskego, Wis.
Others managed to get to land on their own by riding their all-terrain vehicles about five miles east to where ice hadn't broken away.
A second fisherman went into the frigid water when he tried to drive his ATV over a small crack in the ice, Lanier said. A rescue boat pulled him out within a few minutes, and he was brought to shore and wrapped in blankets. The man was not treated at a hospital and went home, Lanier said.
Those rescued had to leave behind most of their equipment, including coolers, snowmobiles and ATVs. Hasty, who was rescued by an air boat, said he was allowed to haul a five-gallon bucket filled with his electronic equipment.
When the rescued fishermen made it to shore, authorities had them line up single-file to take down their names, Hasty said.
"So if we got caught on the ice again, they would charge us a fine for being out there under those conditions," he explained.
Ice fisherman who regularly visit the lake have said this winter's thick ice has lured more people to the lake. The number of ice fishermen has been unprecedented, said Oak Harbor resident Peter Harrison, who has lived on the shore for 40 years.
"There was a heck of a city out there for the last week and a half, two weeks," the 71-year-old said.
Even in cold temperatures, the ice in western Lake Erie is often unsafe because of currents that can easily cause the ice to shift.
Ohio Division of Wildlife spokeswoman Jamey Graham said the state annually warns fishermen that there's no such thing as "safe ice." And authorities along the lake are trained for these type of rescues.
"You have to know the weather. You have to know how to read the ice," Bratton said. "It doesn't take much for this to break."
Four helicopters were sent from Michigan and eight air boats from the Coast Guard, Lanier said. Local authorities also sent air boats out on the ice.
The rescue operation cost thousands of dollars, Bratton said. None of the fishermen will likely be forced to cover the cost, officials said.
"To the best of my knowledge, they didn't break any laws," Lanier said. "Ice fishing is a culture here on the Great Lakes."
Hasty, 65, admitted the possibility of melting ice was in the back of his mind when he set out Saturday morning.
"I thought we could get away with it for today," he said. "When you're crazy for fishin' I guess, and the fish are biting, I just couldn't resist it."