Dave Loden’s pager went off at about 6:30 p.m. Feb. 8. The captain of Johnson County Search and Rescue relayed the message to his team of volunteers. A little girl fell through the ice on the Powder River outside Buffalo.
Robert Boshaw was carrying his 4-year-old daughter Chevell Boshaw-Evans across the river when the ice underneath gave way. They plunged into freezing water. The little girl disappeared.
Of the 15 to 18 missions Johnson County search and rescue performs each year, most are for lost hunters. Few are ice rescues. In fact, since Loden joined the volunteer organization in 1982, there’s only been about six. But when someone falls through the ice responders face a rapidly diminishing timeframe known as the golden hour — that 45 minutes or hour most people can survive in freezing water.
They also are dealing with a technical type of search that requires special equipment and training. Most counties in the state have one or two special ice rescue suits and a few trained rescuers. Johnson County has 16, and on the night of Feb. 8, 12 were in the water, joined by four from Campbell County.
Several decades ago ice rescues didn’t warrant specialized training, and would-be first responders died at a higher rate than the people they were trying to save, Loden said. Often first responders wore heavy clothing, and after pulling victims out of the water they would slip in themselves, sinking quickly as their gear pulled them down. Or they’d try to reach victims by crawling on a ladder laid across the ice to spread out the weight. They’d reach the end, the ice would give way and the ladder pitched them into the water and under the ice.
In February 1990, seven people drowned in a freezing California lake. Three were teens ice-skating. Four were would-be rescuers trying to save them.
The search and rescue community took notice and ice rescue training developed. Loden took one of the first ice rescue courses and became a certified instructor. He led trainings in Johnson County, drawing first responders such as firemen, highway patrolmen, game wardens and ambulance crews from around the region.
There are three stages in an ice rescue: Reach, throw and go. Reach is when you can grab a person and pull them out. Throw is if you arrive before the victim’s fingers freeze and their hands are able to grab a throw bag or rope. Go is the riskiest, when you have to get to the victim to save them. Search and rescue is always in go mode, Loden said. It’s what they practice.
Loden and his team put on bright-colored buoyant suits on the banks of the Powder River the night of Feb. 8. They stepped onto the ice and eventually into the water. Loden couldn’t feel the 36-degree water through the specially designed drysuit. It keeps him so warm, sometimes he’s tempted to unzip it.
They first searched the hole that swallowed Chevell. Then they scoured the main channel, breaking up about four acres of ice with axes, chainsaws and by jumping on weak spots until they collapsed so they could search the river bottom.
The water wasn’t fast, but the current was strong, Loden said. There’s always a risk someone could be swept under the ice if they broke through a section unexpectedly. “There’s no guarantees with ice,” Loden said. “There’s pressure ridges and cold cracks. It’s always unsafe.”
Adam Fink completed his ice rescue training only the weekend before Chevell disappeared. Ice searches are physically demanding and it takes time to acclimate to the puffy rescue suit, he said. Then there’s the disconcerting feeling of plunging through the ice.
But more than anything the search was a mental challenge, because it was a child and because it so quickly turned from a rescue mission to a recovery, he said.
The smaller the person and the colder the water, the longer a victim can survive. For two hours Loden hoped they’d find Chevell. After that, the mission became a body recovery, he said.
Rescuers spent several more days, searching the river by feeling the bottom. The water was too dark to see past the surface. Loden saw conflicting emotions on everyone’s face.
“Well all knew it was a body we were looking for,” Loden said. “Their heart and soul was in finding that body because that’s the kind of people they are, but their brain is not that kind of person. No one really wants to be the one to find that body.”
Yet they kept searching until authorities suspended efforts due to the weather and hazardous conditions.
Johnson County might borrow a sophisticated side-scan sonar from Sublette County, which can show images below the water, Loden said. The recovery effort will likely include dog teams, and Loden’s team will likely return to the ice and water to keep searching for Chevell.
Loden said he has never performed an ice rescue. The missions all turn into body recoveries. Yet with the proper training and equipment, it’s always worth searching.
“There is a life at stake every time we get a call. Somebody is lost or in peril, or we don’t go,” he said. “I think it’s very viable someday we’ll pull a live person out of a hole and save a life.