What happens when your vehicle sinks to lake bottom?

Published:

By DOUG SMITH

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Thin ice kindled by unseasonably warm temperatures has been a nightmare for anglers this winter, causing untold vehicles, icehouses, ATVs and snowmobiles to plunge to lake bottoms.

But Clarence Turner has found sure footing and good fishing. This season, he has hooked five vehicles, six fish houses, two ATVs and a snowmobile.

He's pulled them from Minnesota lakes after their owners broke through the ice. And he's probably not done.

"There's still March," said Turner, owner of Turner Towing in Minnesota.

Turner, 65, has been retrieving sunken treasure for 30 years, and said this will be a year to remember. No one tracks the number of vehicles or icehouses that fall through thin ice, but based on reports from around the state, there have been a lot.

Four Minnesotans have died, but many more have escaped with a cold dunking.

So assuming you escape the sinking vehicle and make it safely to shore, what next?

"You have to notify law enforcement of any accident with more than $500 in damage, and this qualifies," said Tim Collette, conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Said Turner: "The first thing we ask is if you've notified the sheriff or DNR; if not, and someone saw it go down, you'll get a rescue squad and a whole lot of people will show up." You don't want rescuers risking their lives looking for you if you're safely in your cabin.

There's no fine for dropping your truck or ATV into a lake, Collette said. "You have up to 30 days to remove it," he said, though officials might give extensions if ice conditions make removal impossible.

Turner's main business is towing vehicles, but he developed a uniquely Minnesota niche: sunken vehicle retrieval. The top priority is making sure neither he nor his employees also go into the icy water. They use a chainsaw to measure ice thickness before driving to the rescue.

Turner assumes no ice is ever completely safe. "We have life jackets in the truck and cold-water rescue suits; three of us are trained to use those," he said. "If something happens, we are definitely prepared."

They tow a crane with a winch to the spot, using either a wrecker truck or a four-wheeler, depending on ice thickness. Then they use the chainsaw to cut a 12-by-12-foot hole in the ice, shoving ice slabs (trimmed smaller) beneath the ice. Unless the vehicle is near the surface, they hire a scuba diver to attach a cable to the vehicle.

The crane is on a horseshoe-shaped pedestal, and Turner puts planking beneath it to help distribute the weight. The winch pulls the vehicle straight up and out of the water, very slowly.

"We have to let the water run out, because otherwise you get too much weight from the water," Turner said. "You're looking at about an hour."

Once the crane lifts the vehicle from the water, the wrecker, or a winch on an ATV, pulls the crane and vehicle away from the hole, and gently lowers it on its wheels.

How much does it cost? "It depends on what it is and how hard it is to get," Turner said. Figure on $2,000 to $6,000 for a car or truck. An ATV or snowmobile could run $1,200, depending on difficulty. Turner and his crew recently spent half a day recovering a pickup.

Vehicles are totaled, Turner said. Even a new vehicle likely is ruined because the computer wizardry and wiring are destroyed.

Insurance generally pays recovery and replacement costs. But it's the "comprehensive" portion of a policy that covers such a loss, said Mark Kulda, vice president of public affairs for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.

"If you don't have it, then you're on your own," Kulda said.

Once totaled, a vehicle's title would be converted to "salvage," and it would most likely end up being stripped for parts or scrap metal.

Is it dangerous work? "There's some danger, but you just have to use some common sense," Turner said. He has never sunk a tow truck or equipment while salvaging a vehicle, but he has slipped into holes he cut on the ice -- twice. "You'd better have ice picks (to grip the ice) or someone to pull you out," he said. Once his overalls were frozen stiff by the time he walked back to his truck.

Turner offers two pieces of advice to winter lake travelers: "Walk," he said. "There is no such thing as safe ice.

"And make sure you have full insurance."

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