By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The driver of a van that sank in Fresno Reservoir last week during an ice fishing trip was able to retrieve the vehicle and said he is undeterred by the close call.
John Downhour Jr., 46, of Cut Bank, and two relatives swam to shore after the three-quarter-ton van broke through thin ice on Thursday afternoon. Downhour said he was driving on the ice when he noticed a patch of open water and stopped the van. The ice broke and the van started to sink, he said.
The van sank to a depth of about 6 feet, with just the top of the vehicle protruding from the water. Downhour, his brother Joel, and niece Bailey Gideon of Havre climbed onto the roof of the van and then swam 20 to 30 yards to shore.
Downhour said last week he planned to use inflatable inner tubes to float the van to shore. He ultimately opted for a less elaborate plan.
E-1 Towing in Havre pulled the van out of the water, Downhour said. That first required that someone dive into the freezing water from a boat and attach a chain to the submerged van.
Downhour tried to but couldn't. Then Havre resident Ryan Turner, 24, took his chances.
"The wet suit barely worked. There wasn't much to it. It was just the bottom piece," Turner said this morning.
Turner, who is a friend of an E-1 Towing employee, said he volunteered because no one else did.
"I was in water for about 10 seconds, but it seemed like forever," he said. "I had to go down in the water about 6 feet. I took a hook and put it on the front of the van, then jumped back out of the water into the boat."
The van is in Havre being repaired, Downhour said.
"We're going to dry out and drain it, get it fixed and running again," he said.
Downhour said the accident has not deterred him from embarking on future ice fishing expeditions.
"Oh gosh, no," he said. "I caught a bunch of fish yesterday. A guy can't quit fishing because of one little accident."
People who fall through ice are at great risk of getting hypothermia, said Dave Krezelak, an emergency medical technician at the Havre Fire Department.
"More than likely, you're going to be cold to begin with, and then going into the water, you're going to go into hypothermia rapidly," he said.
Factors like age, health, and alcohol consumption all play a part in how quickly a person succumbs to hypothermia, Krezelak said, adding that the window of survival for anyone who falls through the ice is brief.
"If something were to call us from Beaver Creek Park, we're just hoping they're still alive by the time we get out there," he said. "We're hoping."
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it had not yet evaluated ice on local lakes to determine whether they are safe for vehicles.