The emergency began the instant 8-year-old Trent Claassen fell through the ice.
It was Friday, Jan. 6, on the pond at Pack Park in Moundridge, a town north of Newton off I-135.
The boy and his parents, visiting from the sunny hills outside San Jose, Calif., were staying with relatives who live near the pond. It’s a newer neighborhood on the edge of town. That afternoon, the Claassens and their hosts stepped to a spot where the pond ice was thickest.
Before anyone could reach him, Trent ventured out. The ice gave way, and the red-haired “Harry Potter” fan fell in. Polly Claassen was, by all accounts, a most devoted mother. When she saw that her son had fallen in, she scrambled toward him and ended up in the frigid water. Her husband, Gary, followed, and he fell in. For a while, their boy clung to the ice.
For the fire chief who led the effort to save them, it was his first experience with an ice emergency.
Full account of rescue
The account that follows comes from interviews with emergency officials and witnesses.
The first 911 call came in to McPherson County dispatchers at 3:32 p.m.
As one dispatcher took the call, it was immediately coded as a water rescue. The dispatcher asked questions, including how many people were in the water, how far from the shore, whether the caller could see all three victims. While one dispatcher was speaking to the caller, another was paging fire and EMS crews and law enforcement.
Under the protocol, the dispatcher told the caller: “I’ve sent help to you. Stay on the line, and I’ll tell you exactly what to do next. Listen carefully, this could be a very dangerous situation.”
And a second set of instructions: “Do not go out onto the ice. Have someone constantly maintain direct sight of the person. Do not go out onto the ice. If it’s safe to do so, throw an object out to the person for him/her to hold on to (branches, boards).”
In the world of emergency responders, water rescues are among the most challenging and dangerous because of the physics and realities involved.
Ice multiplies the difficulty and danger.
In 24 years of rushing to emergencies, Moundridge Fire Chief Ron Blaylock had never dealt with a call like it.
Over the years, others have skated or stepped out onto some parts of that pond without anything going wrong, some neighbors say.
During his walks near the park in the past, the fire chief said, “I’ve chased kids off that ice before.”
The south-central Kansas firefighters tasked with water rescues generally take the view that no pond ice is safe, because weather constantly alters the strength and thickness. The surface can be deceiving. It might be 3 inches thick along the edge. But it can quickly shift to dangerously thin spots.
Moundridge has a population between 1,700 and 1,800. About 22 people serve on the volunteer fire department.
According to emergency radio traffic, some crews arrived at the pond by 3:38, within six minutes of the 911 call.
The first emergency personnel could see one person struggling and two who appeared to be under water.
The mother and child were already submerged beneath sheets of broken ice. Blaylock didn’t know how quickly they went under.
The fire chief and police chief were the first at the scene, followed by a rescue truck with two people, then an engine crew shortly after that with five people. After that, Blaylock lost track of who arrived.
He called for three other departments to assist: from Hesston, Newton and Halstead.
Beyond his control
As the town’s fire chief, Blaylock was commander of a rescue attempt where the situation was already desperate. Much of it was beyond his control.
Gary Claassen, the father and husband, was the only one whose head remained above water. He held onto the ice. The firefighters threw rope to him.
But the fire chief could see that Claassen was struggling with hypothermia. He sank a couple times.
The firefighters, working off the north shore, yelled and screamed to him. They pleaded with him to grab the rope and keep fighting for his life.
After they pulled Claassen out, they laid two aluminum ladders off the fire truck onto the ice. They tied safety ropes onto a captain, and he crawled out onto the ladders. The ladders help disperse weight.
They could see Polly Claassen, still submerged.
The captain couldn’t reach her, and the crew pulled the captain back in.
Two firefighters then went out in a small flat-bottom boat that had been brought from a home in town. They broke through the ice and brought her out.
She was unresponsive. An ambulance took her to a Newton hospital.
Throughout, Blaylock, as incident commander, was having to weigh the risk to the crews. After the team brought the mother out, he decided to wait until the Newton team arrived. They had special equipment that the smaller Moundridge department lacked.
Getting to the boy
The Newton Fire/EMS team received the call for assistance around 3:52, about 20 minutes after the first 911 call.
Newton Deputy Chief Steve Roberson and three others from his department left Newton with a boat.
When they pulled up to the pond, it was 4:06, around the time the mother was being removed from the water. Finding the boy and getting him out was their job.
Blaylock told Roberson the approximate spot where the boy was last seen. It was about 15 yards from the shore, across broken ice.
As Roberson quickly assessed the situation, he decided that sending rescuers out in thermally protected and buoyant “dry suits,” attached to a safety line, was the best option rather than using the boat.
If a rescuer got into danger or the boy was recovered, they could be pulled out.
One of the rescuers in dry suits was a firefighter paramedic, the other a firefighter EMT. One of them went in. The second would go in to help bring the child out.
One of the locals said the pond was 8 to 10 feet deep. The Newton firefighter sent out into icy water told Roberson that once he had reached the spot 15 yards out, he couldn’t touch bottom.
Roberson estimated it took 10 to 15 minutes to find the boy – in water where visibility was limited.
The rescuer found the boy when his leg touched the child.
As with his mother, the boy was unresponsive.
The child was removed from the water at 4:21, according to emergency radio traffic.
It was 49 minutes after the first 911 call.
Both the boy and his mother were pronounced dead after being taken to hospitals – in the hope that they could be revived. People have been known to survive prolonged submersion in cold water.
‘My heart sank’
Jenni Guyer lives across from the park. That afternoon, she had just parked after returning from picking up her daughter at school. Guyer heard sirens and ran out, watching as emergency vehicles rolled into the park.
From a bedroom balcony where she could see more, Guyer noticed a woman on a phone in the park. The woman seemed frantic.
The woman was pacing.
Beyond the woman, Guyer saw two people in the water, only their heads visible.
“And my heart sank, absolutely sank,” Guyer said.
On the Monday before the pond emergency, it was warm enough that “we were outside in T-shirts,” Guyer said. She took a photo of the pond, which was not frozen over, she said.
As Guyer watched, she recognized friends among the emergency workers rushing about.
She heard splashing, someone yelling, “You grab that ... rope!”
Guyer, who serves on the Moundridge park board, said she is the one who later placed a bouquet of roses on the shore where the rescue effort had occurred.
“Being that it was such a tragic event,” she said, “it seemed like the right thing to do.”
Randy Frazer, the Moundridge city administrator, also lives near the park and got to the rescue scene a little after the crews arrived.
“Those guys were pouring their hearts” into the effort, Frazer said.
The park rules sign says, “No boating, swimming or wading.”
Now, with the two deaths, another rule will be added – telling visitors not to go onto the ice, Frazer said.
It’s also possible that the fire department will be acquiring emergency equipment that could be used in a similar emergency, Frazer said.
Used by skaters
Over the years, people have skated on the pond.
Steve Kaufman, 43, is one of them. He has lived near the pond for almost eight years.
When he felt it was reasonably safe, Kaufman said, he has gone onto some parts of the pond with his kids, when they were from 6 to 14.
“We wouldn’t venture too far,” he said. The south side of the pond tends to have the strongest ice. Some winters, they didn’t skate there because the ice wasn’t thick enough, he said. He has not been on the pond this year because of his schedule.
Kaufman doesn’t know all the details of how the tragedy occurred.
But he could imagine that from a child’s perspective, the pond ice might look the same across the surface, that a child might be tempted to go out too far.
Now, he said, “I think people will be reluctant to venture out on the ice much.”