First responders recover body of fisherman who fell through ice

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DEWITT COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — Hours of hard work in freezing cold water. Constant planning, searching, and pulling. That is how a team of more than 40 first responders recovered the body of a 79-year-old man.

Thomas J. While and his grandson were ice fishing on December 21, in a neighbors pond 3 miles from their home.

“We got a call about a man that went through the ice,” says Sgt. John Williamson with Illinois Conservation Police.

The two of them were walking on the frozen pond in Wapella when the ice cracked.

“When it’s good and cold, the ice forms. There’s no problem…It looked like, you know, there’s two, three inches of ice, which is good,” says Williamson. But it’s melting ice, and it gets weak. So, that’s when you have the problems.”

Family members and friends at the scene say his grandson tried to save him, but could not do it without risking falling in himself. So, he called for help. That help consisted of a few dozen first responders—including a dive team. But even for them, cold waters can be dangerous without high-tech help.

“It’s a very dangerous situation to have divers in the water with the ice, so having that sonar…being able to see exactly what we’re working with is a huge help,” says Williamson. It’s called sector scan. We can do a 360 [degree] so you get through the ice. Get that down there.”

And after getting down there, they were able to complete the mission. They started at around 8AM and recovered the man’s body hours later, around 12:24 p.m., Sunday, December 22. They say a life jacket could have saved his family from heartbreak.

“Maybe seem kind of strange, but even though you’re walking around, you’re not on a boat…always wear a life jacket whenever you’re around the water. Doesn’t matter if it’s on top, around, the edge, whatever. Having a life jacket on may have been a big help in this situation,” says Williamson.

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