Minnesota company hauls sunken vehicles up from the depths

Posted Feb. 29, 2012, at 3:32 p.m.

MINNEAPOLIS — Thin ice kindled by unseasonably warm temperatures has been a nightmare for anglers this winter, causing untold vehicles, ice houses, ATVs and snowmobiles to plunge to lake bottoms in Minnesota.

But Clarence Turner has found sure footing and good fishing. This season, he has hooked five vehicles, six fish houses, two ATVs and a snowmobile.

He has pulled them from Brainerd-area lakes after their owners broke through the ice. And he’s probably not done.

“There’s still March,” said Turner, owner of Turner Towing in Nisswa, Minn.

Turner, 65, been retrieving sunken treasure for 30 years, and says this will be a year to remember. No one tracks the number of vehicles or ice houses that fall through thin ice, but based on reports from around the state, there have been a lot. Several more went in over the weekend.

“There have to have been dozens so far,” said Tim Smalley, Department of Natural Resources water safety specialist. “It’s really the goofiest winter I’ve seen. I cannot remember a time when we’ve had this rotten ice over much of the state for the entire winter.”

Four people have died, but many more have escaped with a cold dunking. “It could have been a lot worse,” Smalley said.

So what happens when you hear that sickening crunch of ice giving way as you drive across your favorite fishing lake? How do folks like Turner pull vehicles from the depths, who pays for it, and then what?

We will assume you escaped the sinking vehicle and made it safely to shore. What next?

“You have to notify law enforcement of any accident with more than $500 in damage, and this qualifies,” said Tim Collette, DNR conservation officer.

Turner said, “The first thing we ask is if you’ve notified the sheriff or DNR; if not, and someone saw it go down, you’ll get a rescue squad and a whole lot of people will show up.”

You don’t want rescuers risking their lives looking for you if you’re safely in your cabin.

There’s no fine for dropping your truck or ATV into a Minnesota lake, Collette said. “You have up to 30 days to remove it,” he said, though officials might give extensions if ice conditions make removal impossible.

How does he do it?

Turner’s main business is towing vehicles, but living in the Brainerd area, he developed a uniquely Minnesota niche: sunken vehicle retrieval. The top priority is making sure neither he nor his employees also go into the drink. They use a chainsaw to measure ice thickness before driving to the rescue.

“The saw is marked at 13 inches, so we know we have more than a foot of ice,” he said. “We check several spots.”

Turner assumes no ice is ever completely safe. “We have life jackets in the truck and cold-water rescue suits; three of us are trained to use those,” he said. “If something happens, we are definitely prepared.”

They tow a crane with a winch to the spot, using either a wrecker truck or a four-wheeler, depending on ice thickness. Then they use the chainsaw to cut a 12-by-12-foot hole in the ice, shoving ice slabs (trimmed smaller) beneath the ice. Unless the vehicle is near the surface, they hire a scuba diver to attach a cable to the vehicle.

How long does it take?

The crane is on a horseshoe-shaped pedestal, and Turner puts planking beneath it to help distribute the weight. The winch pulls the vehicle straight up and out of the water, very slowly.

“We have to let the water run out, because otherwise you get too much weight from the water,” Turner said. “You’re looking at about an hour.”

Once the crane lifts the vehicle from the water, the wrecker, or a winch on an ATV, pulls the crane and vehicle away from the hole and gently lowers it on its wheels.

How much does it cost?

“It depends on what it is and how hard it is to get,” Turner said. Figure on $2,000-$6,000 for a car or truck. An ATV or snowmobile could run $1,200, depending on difficulty. Turner and his crew recently spent half a day recovering a pickup from Gull Lake.

What about the vehicles?

“They are totaled,” Turner said. Even a new vehicle likely is ruined because the computer wizardry and wiring are destroyed.

Insurance generally pays recovery and replacement costs. But it’s the “comprehensive” portion of an insurance policy that would cover such a loss, said Mark Kulda, vice president of public affairs for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.

“If you don’t have it, then you’re on your own,” Kulda said.

Owners of many older vehicles drop comprehensive and collision coverages and only carry liability.

Once totaled, a vehicle’s title would be converted to “salvage,” and it would most likely end up being stripped for parts or scrap metal.

Is it dangerous work?

“There’s some danger, but you just have to use some common sense,” Turner said. He has never sunk a tow truck or equipment while salvaging a vehicle, but he has slipped into holes he cut on the ice — twice. “You’d better have ice picks [to grip the ice] or someone to pull you out,” he said. Once his overalls were frozen stiff by the time he walked back to his truck.

Isn’t there pollution?

“Pollution usually is minor; typically we don’t get MPCA involved,” Collette said. Turner agreed, saying, “A little gas comes out, but as a rule, we don’t have that problem.”

Want free advice?

Turner offers two pieces of advice to winter lake travelers:

“Walk,” he said. “There is no such thing as safe ice. And make sure you have full insurance.”

 

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