'It could have been really bad:' Wisconsin man survives after SUV falls through Sturgeon Bay ice

The unseasonably warm temperatures we’re experiencing are contributing to some very thin ice on Lake Michigan.

Dan Hill of Algoma learned that the hard way while trying to tow his ice shanty off the lake in Sturgeon Bay on Saturday.

“I was driving on the ice, and as soon as went through, the water came right to the mirrors,” he says. “It dropped fast. Luckily, I was taught not to wear my seat belt and keep the driver’s side window open, in case of this. I had the window open, so I bailed right away, and pulled myself out the car to safety. Then I watched the car sink fast. It could have been really bad.”

Hill is lucky to be alive. His Cadillac Escalade truck is a total loss. It was only a year old. It cost him close to $8,000 to get it out from underwater.

“My poor girl, Janis,” Hill says.

He named his precious truck after Janis Joplin, and boy does she look rough now. A headlight cracked when it hit the ice, mud is everywhere, and some of Lake Michigan is still in the glove box. In 45 years of ice fishing, this has never happened before.

“Because of the conditions outside getting warmer, I knew I should get my shanty off the ice,” he says. “That’s all I was trying to do. I know this part of the lake like the back of my hand. The ice didn’t look any different there than anywhere else, but it can change. All it takes is one time. Ice doesn’t give a warning.”

“It’s never 100 percent safe,” says Don Herman, the owner of Sunk Dive & Ice Service. “If that guy would have been just 30 more yards east, he would have never fell in. Where he broke through, the water is swirling underneath, causing the ice to break. He just hit the wrong spot at the wrong time.”

Herman has been pulling out cars that go through thin ice since 1979. So far this winter, he and his team of divers have pulled out at least 20 submerged cars all around the state.

“We’ve dove a few times when it was 15 degrees below zero,” he says. “We’re accustomed to cold water."

Herman has a special truck, tow hooks, and tools. Before he cuts the ice away with a saw to make more room, and puts on his scuba gear, he has to research the car that’s underwater.

“We’ll go find one at a car lot some place, and look underneath of it to see where we’re going to hook on, so we know what we’ll be working with. Because sometimes we get in the water, and the car is buried in three feet of mud, and we have to shovel it out.”

They try to be in the water for less than 20 minutes. While this latest dive went smoothly for the Don Herman and his team, it’s going to take a long time for Dan Hill to get over.

“I loved that truck,” he says.

The ice shanty the truck was towing did survive the sink, and Hill says he plans to take it out on the ice again next year. But he wants his experience serve as a lesson. 

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