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The Big Question: What's It Like To Fall Through Ice?

The Big Question: What’s It Like To Fall Through Ice?
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On December 19, 2010, Paul Cassidy, a 59-year-old software engineer from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, was ice skating on Lake Monomonac, near the New Hampshire border. He’d been on the lake for about an hour when he came upon a pressure ridge, a fault in the ice caused by water filling surface cracks and refreezing.

“I was cautious coming up to that pressure ridge, but not as cautious as I should have been. I knew not to try crossing. Instead, I reversed direction and skated parallel to the ridge with the intention of going around. I was about 150 feet from the lake edge when I slowed my pace. I saw water seeping around my skates. There was no give in the ice–it just broke. If I’d been moving, I might have had a chance. But I was flat-footed. I went straight down.

“The terror doesn’t just ramp up–it’s exponential. I wasn’t thinking clearly. It was just so cold. When I couldn’t touch bottom, I realized how fast I could drown. I had a ski pole, but I couldn’t dig it into the ice enough to get leverage. With just my head above water, surrounded by ice chunks, I tried to yell for help. There was so much pressure on my chest that my voice was a loud whisper. I couldn’t project.

“I wore myself out struggling for a minute or two, then tried to relax and tread water by kicking my feet. I was surprised at how much buoyancy I got with minimal effort. To conserve energy, I rested my head on the ice shelf. I soon realized that using that leverage point, I could project my voice by doing stomach crunches as I yelled.

“I was encouraged when I heard a response from the shore, but I was sure I wasn’t visible. Every few seconds I put out another call. I kept trying to push up onto the ice, but my backpack was catching. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to pull myself out with my backpack on, but the only way to remove it was to submerge. I struggled with that decision: What happens if something pulls me away from the hole? I went under, and my clothing got trapped in the straps, pinning my arms. That was the darkest moment. I shook violently, nearly dislocating my arms. Suddenly, the backpack came free, and I came back to the surface, gasping for air. “Now I was able to scoot my back up on the shelf and was even able to get one skate up, but I was on my back and couldn’t lift myself. It was like a vortex, because once the ice is wet, it’s so slippery. Exhausted, I would yell, rest about 10 seconds, then yell again.

“Of all the beautiful sights I saw that day, the one that is most deeply imprinted on my mind is of Peter Sherwin rushing toward me, pulling his aluminum boat, with John Strauss pushing from behind. I was lucky. John had been waiting to go somewhere, but his son was taking an extra-long time in the shower. Pete was just out collecting some firewood. He was about to go back inside and turn up the football on TV. It was absolute chance that they heard me at all.

“When they arrived, I was exhausted. I was in a horizontal position, with just my face above water. I have no doubt that I couldn’t have lasted much longer. Had they not found me when they did, I’m certain those would have been the final moments of my life. I was really struck by how fragile life is. There were things that were working for me and things that were working against me. The things that were working for me were just enough.”

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