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Water rescue shows reporter’s not yellow

Superior firefighter John Lundberg, right, taps his head to signal the rescue boat is ready to be pulled in with himself and Maria Lockwood, center, on board Friday. Firefighter Matt Noll, left, remains in the water near Barker’s Island. (Photo by Dave Johnson of the Superior Fire Department)

Go jump in the lake, I was told last Friday.

OK, to be fair, I volunteered. That’s why, I found myself crossing brittle ice on the cove by Barker’s Island.

Superior firefighters had already broken through the ice not far from the bridge between the island and city. Water lapped in the hole, dotted with a few frozen chunks.

“Walk normally,” suggested firefighter Matt Noll, but I found myself taking hesitant baby steps as the edge of the ice got closer. Mere inches from open water, I felt the ice beneath me give way and I slipped in. There was no splash, no splutter. Instead I fell in slow motion, dipping almost to the waist before I rolled on to my back. Despite much squeezing and smushing beforehand, the protective dry suit encasing me was filled with air. I bobbed like a cork, trying to get my legs beneath me. I was certainly not going to be rescuing anybody in that position, unless they grabbed hold and used me like a giant flotation device.

It was not my best fashion day, I’ll admit. Yellow isn’t my color to begin with, the Mustang “Ice Commander” dry suit was probably made for someone with more heft and my hair was escaping madly from the hood. But with some coaching from Noll, I finally got my feet beneath me. As the air escaped around my face, the suit tightened against my legs and torso. It felt like I was being vacuum packed. Then I gave the universal call for help.

“Help, help.” (Fashion disaster calling.)

That’s when firefighter John Lundberg headed our way, a veritable symphony of yellow. Not only was Lundberg encased in a yellow Mustang suit, he was toting an inflatable yellow boat. The Rapid Deployment Craft, nicknamed the “banana boat,” was purchased last summer with federal Port Security grant dollars. The vessel stows in a bag to be packed just about anywhere. It inflates in about a minute with a single tank of air and can carry more than 2,000 pounds. It can be paddled, mounted with a motor, or pulled behind a boat or personal watercraft. In fact, it’s so portable even a reporter can carry it around.

The boat has horseshoe-shaped open ends. The rescuer can stand in one, bring the boat out to the victim, and slip the other end over them. Then they reach out and pull the victim onto the boat bottom that separates them.

Lundberg hooked me with the banana boat and held out a hand. I climbed aboard and they towed me to safety. But wait, Noll remained floating in the water. So I jumped in one end of the boat and went after him.

Once Noll was close enough, I tried to pull him in. While I could heft that boat around just fine, the firefighter defeated me. He was kind enough to be a self-rescuing victim. I tapped my head with my hand two times and Lundberg pulled the boat, Noll and I in.

Practice, they say, makes perfect. I dipped in a few more times, trying to wrangle my suit into submission. By the third try, I got my feet under me quickly and felt more ready to lend a hand and less like a rubber duck.

This was the first time the Superior Fire Department trained with the boat on ice. Driver Jeff Allen said it’s the perfect time of year because spring ice is thick but rotten. The ice off Barker’s Friday was candled — decaying ice that, if you look at a cross-section, takes on the appearance of vertical, candle-shaped crystals. No matter how thick it is, candled ice can fall apart under you, the firefighters said.

The rescue training may have looked like a lot of fun, but it was serious business. Firefighters have to be comfortable with their equipment in order to use it in an emergency. When I first fell into the water, I would have been useless to a victim. By the third go, I was in a better position to help someone else. Noll even showed me how to be a self-rescuing reporter, by dragging myself out onto the ice and rolling toward a more stable spot.

Thanks to the Superior Fire Department, I’ve fought a living room fire, rescued smoke inhalation “victims” and climbed to the top of the fire truck ladder as part of their Fire Ops 101 program. Now, I can add Mustang suit prowess to my resume. I wouldn’t mind having such a suit for winter weather (or a dip in Lake Superior during any season).

I do have one request, though — do they come in pink?