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Helicopter used as ice breaker to rescue two from Lake Michigan

The Holland Sentinel • Jul 22, 2015 at 11:34 AM

“This was definitely the most out-of-the-box case I’ve been involved with,” said Lt. Rocco Franco, one of the pilots of the aircrew. “It’s not very often that our helicopter is used as an ice breaker.”

No one was injured in the incident.

There is still a presence of ice on Lake Michigan that can easily be blown in different directions by the wind, according to the Coast Guard, and people on the water can find themselves in life-threatening situations very quickly.

About 8.1 percent of the lake was still ice-covered as of Monday morning, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory of the National Weather Service. Most of it is in the northern section of the lake, although some remains on the east side of Lake Michigan.

Just before 10 a.m. Saturday, the Coast Guard office in Milwaukee received a call from the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department that two men had been fishing near the mouth of Lake Macatawa when their 16-foot boat became surrounded by ice about a half-mile offshore, according to the Coast Guard. Strong southwest winds shifted the large chunks of ice, some 20-30 feet wide and 2-feet thick.

Due to the ice coverage, the men had no way to get back to shore.

A rescue boat was dispatched from Station Grand Haven, but it was hindered by ice and could only get to within about 6 miles of the distressed boat.

The helicopter arrived at about 11 a.m.

After deciding against hoisting the men up into the helicopter because it could potentially capsize the small boat with the helicopter’s rotor wash, the aircrew lowered a radio down to the men to communicate.

“It was then that the aircrew saw the ice beginning to part and break up from the rotor wash,” the Coast Guard noted in a release on its website. “The aircrew continued to hover between 50 and 80 feet above the ice for about 45 minutes, maneuvering the craft so that the rotor wash could create an open path for the fishermen to finally head to shore.”

The men made it to shore about 2 miles from where they first started fishing. Their names were not released.

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