Officials: 1 dead, 134 rescued from Lake Erie ice

OAK HARBOR, Ohio (AP) -- Cell phones rang and word was passed to fishermen out on a distant stretch of Lake Erie's iced-over waters: A crack had widened in the ice, trapping everyone on a miles-wide floe that was drifting away from the Ohio shoreline.

Some immediately hopped on their four-wheelers and snowmobiles, headed east in search of an ice bridge back to shore.

"Just like a stampede, they all took off," said Chuck Hasty of Holland, Ohio, who has been out on the ice fishing all week. "Took off like a gold rush."

The rest simply waited, stranded with their buckets of fish. 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.

About an hour later, rescuers began arriving in helicopters and lowered baskets onto the ice, and fishermen climbed in and were lifted to safety. Others boarded air boats that glided across the ice.

"We were in no danger," said Norb Pilaczynski of Swanton, Ohio, who was rescued from the lake along with several of his friends. "We knew there was enough ice out there."

A Coast Guard spokesman, Chief Petty Officer Robert Lanier, said 134 people had been plucked from the ice by late afternoon. One man fell into the water and later died of an apparent heart attack.

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.

"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."

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," Hasty said. "It was a matter of a minute or so."

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."

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Associated Press writers Kantele Franko and Meghan Barr in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.

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