Thursday, March 02, 2017

Don't worry, that helicopter and swarm of Coast Guard boats on Lake Michigan was only a drill

The news crackling over the dispatch radio was grim: a plane crashed into Lake Michigan with 71 passengers and four crew members.

The U.S. Coast Guard began coordinating a massive rescue response, relying on 20 other law enforcement agencies to help get survivors out of the freezing water and to medical centers in the region.

The Coast Guard's Mobile Bay, primarily used for icebreaking, headed out to McKinley Marina Thursday morning while a Coast Guard rescue helicopter from Traverse City, Mich., buzzed overhead. Milwaukee Police Department divers suited up and the Fire Department coordinated from shore inside its mobile command post.

It was only a drill, but also a test of preparedness for such a mass rescue operation.

"The big takeaway is not one agency can do everything, so we have to build that network," said Lt. j.g. Tom Morrell of the Coast Guard's enforcement division.

The Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan frequently responds to rescues of people in kayaks or paddleboards who have gone too far from shore or people who fall off boats.

"Typically, one to four people is sort of standard," said Ensign Paul Grotelueschen of sector command center. "Anything that goes beyond that enters the realm of a mass rescue operation."

Although rare, planes have crashed into Lake Michigan. Nearly four years ago, two people were killed when a small plane bound for EAA AirVenture crashed into the waters off Cudahy.

In June 2007, six people died when a plane carrying a transplant team from the University of Michigan Medical Center crashed just off Milwaukee's lakefront. The team was in Milwaukee to harvest organs. At the time, Lake Michigan was about 57 degrees, which would allow a person to survive for about 6 hours, officials said.

And in general, statistics have indicated Lake Michigan is the deadliest of the Great Lakes with nearly as many drownings and water rescues since 2010 as the four lakes combined, according to the nonprofit Great Lake Surf Rescue Project.

The Coast Guard conducts ice-rescue training annually with partner agencies — such a drill was happening simultaneously Thursday morning in Cudahy — and has had past mass rescue training sessions in Green Bay and Superior.

The Coast Guard also urged boaters and others who enjoy winter activities on the lake to be prepared.

"Even in warm weather, if you're going out make sure you have the correct safety gear," Morrell said. "Always dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature."

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