'It was terrifying'
Steve “Zippy” Dahl has seen in a lot in 16 years as a fishing guide, but he's never had a vehicle fall through the ice.
The owner of the Perch Patrol said he was out with other guides and some out-of-state anglers about 8:30 a.m. on Sunday near Fort Totten, ND, when the unthinkable happened — a tire from one of the pickups caught a crack in the ice and within minutes the entire truck was submerged.
“We've never had anything like this happen before,” he said in a phone interview Monday.
Because of the large amounts of snow on the ice, Dahl said they had previously plowed a trail on the ice — and traveled it several times. But sometime overnight a large crack formed in the ice.
“It was four inches wide, but it had snow over it,” he said. “It was parallel to the trail we made the day before.”
Dahl said two pickups had passed the crack without incident but tires of the third vehicle slipped into the crack. He said the driver, Bill Ortiz, noticed the danger and told all of the occupants to exit the vehicle.
“Bill told everyone to get out,” Dahl said.
He said the passenger in the front seat jumped out of the vehicle immediately and Ortiz stood on the running boards to help the other three out of the back seat because the passenger door was no longer usable. The men, two from Chicago and two from Wisconsin, escaped without injury.
Dahl said within 90 seconds the front of the vehicle was in the water — and just minutes later the entire truck was submerged.
“It went vertical — straight in the air, almost like Titanic,” he said. “Thank God everybody got out.”
Dahl said soon after the pickup dropped through the ice, the chunk of ice that had broken off floated back to the surface.
“The chunk of ice floated up and it filled in like a jigsaw puzzle,” Dahl said. “It was terrifying.”
Dahl estimates the water was about 22 feet deep where the 2006 Chevy Crew Cab fell through.
Dahl said a couple of the visiting fishermen “got wet” during the incident and the guides quickly set up heated ice houses to dry the men and keep them warm. They then called for help to ferry the men back to shore.
“Thank God we travel together,” Dahl said, obviously still shaken. “It was a scary experience, it's never happened to us before.”
Dahl said the unusual amount of snowfall has created some new challenges for ice fishing this year, but he doesn't think the thickness of the ice was a factor in Sunday's mishap.
“There was 18 inches of ice,” he said. “In my mind, it wasn't the thickness of the ice, it had more to do with that crack. I think it was a freak accident.”
But, he admits, they aren't taking any chances.
“We're canceling clients for now,” he said. “We're hoping for one more cold snap.”
Dahl said he is also considering the purchase of track vehicles, which travel well over snow and distribute the weight more evenly than tires.
First time in Devils Lake
Wisconsin resident Barry Grill, 64, was once a pro bass fisherman and has been fishing most of his life — but this was his first time visiting Devils Lake.
"It's not the first time I've seen a truck go through the ice," he said. "But it's the first time I was in it."
Grill was sitting in the back seat of the truck on Sunday and was the last one to exit the vehicle.
"Bill (Ortiz) has done this a million times, I've done this a million times, but as we crossed it I noticed this crack," he recalled during a phone interview Tuesday morning.
Grill said he remembers thinking, "This isn't right," when he saw the crack in the ice, but was reassured by his friends that is was just an expansion crack.
He said as the truck ahead of them crossed the crack, they saw the right hind wheel go down a bit, but they weren't too concerned.
"It was rough out there," he said.
But, when they tried to cross the crack, the front end began to sink.
"Bill opened the door and said 'bail out, we're going to go down,'" he said.
Grill said he still wasn't too excited about the incident and took his time exiting the vehicle.
"I said, 'I don't think it's going to go down,' — and all of a sudden a big chunk of ice lifted the back of the truck," he said.
He said they were about 50 feet away when they watched the pickup sink.
"It was a scary moment," he said.
But, Grill said, he has seen and done a lot in his 64 years — and this will not deter him from ice fishing again.
"I was thinking about going out fishing today," he said. "It's like falling off a horse."
Grill said he thinks the crack in the ice was formed by the ever-expanding water on Devils Lake.
"The lake is coming up, that's why it's opening up," he said. "I'd be willing to bet that crack goes all the way around the lake."
Grill said he may return to Devils Lake to fish again one day — but first they have to recover from this trip.
"On the way home yesterday, we smashed up his truck," Grill said of fishing companion, Don and his Toyota pickup.
He said the two stopped in Fargo for breakfast on the way home and when re-entering the interstate lost control of the vehicle.
"I went across three lanes and never touched a car," he said.
The vehicle, he noted, sustained minor damage but they were able to drive it home. Neither of the men in the truck were injured.
Grill said he was impressed with the North Dakota law enforcement that attended to the accident, but he was even more impressed with Dahl and his crew.
"The guys did a phenomenal job of making sure we were safe and getting us off the ice," he said. "I'm really impressed with the people, I can't say enough about them. They're just good old boys."