Emotions still high over rescue on ice
Written by Toledo Blade   
Sunday, 15 March 2009 10:10
Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton called a meeting so he could listen to the ice fishermen of Lake Erie and, with Lucas County Sheriff James Telb at his side, he got an earful.

One by one, fishermen and others who have used the lake for decades stepped to the microphone last night and peppered the men - but mostly Sheriff Bratton - with questions. They offered fervent views on ice conditions and the rescue Feb. 7, when more than 130 were taken from a floe in Lake Erie. One man with a heart condition died that day.

"I want to hear opinions, suggestions," Sheriff Bratton told about 50 people in the emergency management center of the Ottawa County Courthouse.

A heated exchange was sparked by Chris Sutton of Mentor, Ohio, an ice guide and charter captain, who said he was insulted by comments Sheriff Bratton made the day of the rescue that called into question the sense of those on the ice.

"I expect your apology," Mr. Sutton said.

Mr. Sutton declined when the sheriff asked whether he wanted a response. Later, one speaker began his comments, "With all due respect, I don't consider myself an idiot either."

As Mr. Sutton quizzed the sheriff about the rescue and about Ot-tawa County's emergency ice rescue plan, Sheriff Bratton said several times, "You're taking things and turning them completely around." After one exchange, Mr. Sutton turned to the audience and asked, "Do you think I'm turning things around?"

During a break in the meeting, Sheriff Bratton said, "I'm an emotional guy," and would not apologize. "I was talking about that particular day, and that's how I felt," he said.

He said during the meeting that he did not invoke the county's emergency plan because the rescue began on the Lucas County portion of the lake.

The U.S. Coast Guard this week said that the rescue cost it $245,186. Sheriff Bratton and several in the audience expressed frustration that no one from the Coast Guard was at the meeting.

Several speakers repeated a claim made just after the rescue that a ship cut a channel through the ice earlier that week, causing a crack in the ice to widen. A Coast Guard spokesman said then that no ice-cutting operations were in the area.

Neil Shrock of Marblehead, who formerly owned a boat emergency service, said that ice rescues should be turned over to private business, as many boat rescues are.

"If you let private enterprise charge, these fishermen would start to learn," he said.

Jim Toth of Marblehead said he travels the frozen lake by snowmobile and is concerned state law might one day require permission to be on the ice. He made a point echoed by others: Many of those rescued don't know the lake and the ice.

"People who don't live on the ice can very easily make the mistake they did," Mr. Toth said. "And it was a mistake. How long are we going to beat on these people? I think we beat on them enough."

The two sheriffs and several speakers mentioned starting a system to notify the public when ice conditions are poor or deteriorating.

Sheriff Bratton and Sheriff Telb are forming a committee to include public safety officials and ice fishermen - several in the room volunteered last night - to study ice rescues and safety and come up with a plan. "Our main goal is safety, safety for everyone," Sheriff Telb said. "I know you want to use the lake. We're going to do all we can to make it safe."
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