by Marianne Gasaway
A team from the the Ventura Fire Department, using a new boat equipped with advanced technology, was able to locate the body of an Iowa State University student a day after a school crew club boat capsized during practice on a lake.
Ventura firemen Jim Sholly, Matt Schroeder, Jake Whitehurst and Bill Bredlow traveled to Little Wall Lake, located about 60 miles south, just after 9 p.m. Sunday. Working in pitch dark conditions, the group was on the water by 10:30. At approximately 3:15 a.m. they located a “point of interest” in the lake which they believed was the victim they were looking for. They marked the location with a buoy and took GPS coordinates, which were relayed to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office.
At first light Monday, a dive team responded to the spot and recovered the missing person.
Ventura Fire Chief John Quintus said the tragic accident occurred almost one year to the day a boater went missing on the Winnebago River in North Iowa. The Ventura Fire Department also assisted with that search, along with other departments, but were unsuccessful. The body of the missing person was eventually recovered weeks later.
Driven by the disappointment of an unsuccessful search, Quintus said his department began planning and raising funds to upgrade their water search equipment.
“The guys felt defeated last year. But they took that and we began writing grants and working on building a new rescue boat,” explained Quintus. “Although this was a horribly sad situation, it was somewhat rewarding to be able to help.”
Ventura fireman Jim Sholly, who serves as the CLEAR Project Coordinator for Clear Lake, was able to provide a good deal of knowledge about sonar equipment as the department began the process of improving its water rescue vessel.
“We spent last summer and fall building a search and recovery platform, wrote a lot of grants and had some fantastic community partners in the process who helped us with time, materials and breaks on contracted services,” said Sholly. “The goal was to have a regional response aspect. Near as we can tell, there are no others in the region like ours and maybe only a couple in the state.”
Sholly estimated the sonar and trolling motor package onboard cost an estimated $10,000. Major contributors included the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa and the John K and Luise V. Hanson Family Foundation.
The boat was ready to begin training on last fall and after the ice was called “out” on Clear Lake last week, members of the department were on the lake using a mannequin designed to sink in the water and fine tuning the sonar technology to locate it. The goal was to have all members trained early this year, but when the situation presented itself Sunday those with the most experience were chosen to respond.
“I saw the news Sunday night after the kids were in bed and I sent a message to Matt Schroeder asking if he had seen what was going on an hour away. Do we want to offer our help?” Sholly asked. “We talked to the chief and he gave us the okay to reach out to the (Hamilton County) Sheriff’s Office.”
In short order, law enforcement checked with Department of Natural Resources officers, who recommended the Ventura group join the search.
The five students involved in the accident were part of the Iowa State Crew Club, a recognized student organization. Members typically practice on Sunday afternoons, according to the club’s website, but also hold early morning practices during the week.
Winds at the time of the accident were reported at 20-25 mph, which made conditions on the lake “pretty rough,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. With air temperatures around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, the water would have been cold enough for hypothermia to set in within minutes.
Reasons for the capsize remain under investigation.
The body of one student was recovered by a dive team on Sunday, while three students were rescued from the water, treated and released from Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, according to a statement released by Iowa State University. The search for the fifth member of the scull team was called off Sunday night due to darkness.
“We knew high winds were in the forecast, so we wanted to start right away Sunday night,” explained Sholly, noting that the high resolution sonar equipment they would use produces best results in stable conditions. “Our new vessel was built with a purpose to do this and the sonar search equipment has a much higher resolution image than previous generations. We were able to provide a different tool than they had been using.”
The team was informed of a location in the lake where the accident occurred Sunday morning and they began their search. Average depth of water was six to 10-feet, Sholly estimated.
The four Ventura firefighters who participated in the search were chosen because they had trained the most on the new equipment, but Sholly said the entire department shared in the successful deployment.
“The entire department worked on this project, from design, research, building it out and proving it— and there were others willing to go on Sunday,” said Sholly. “We had the three with the most experience and another to provide another set of eyes and operate the boat.”
The Ventura rescue boat is stored at the station and is always in ready condition.
“Most times an emergent response is not needed, but we are always ready to go,” said Sholly.
“The catalyst for the project was the search on the Winnebago a year ago. We had talked several years about upgrading our platform, but that experience really moved us to get the best tools we can, knowing we can’t change the outcome, but can facilitate faster healing for families. We want families to be able to begin that healing and get closure.”