SUV in fatal accident recovered from lake

Monday, February 4, 2019

The SUV involved in the Jan. 20 accident on Storm Lake that claimed the lives of Anthon man Zackary Newlon, 40, and his son Blaire, 8, was recovered by specialists Friday.

Okoboji Underwater Recovery Specialists from Spirit Lake recovered the Nissan Xterra that fell through the ice, after rescheduling the recovery twice due to poor weather and ice conditions.

Windy weather conditions weren't ideal on Friday, but it was good enough to get the job done, said Bob Kirschbaum, owner of one of the only underwater recovery companies in Iowa. Their team has worked in conditions up to 10 degrees below zero, but not with a lot of wind.

A crew of eight, including divers, suited up with diving equipment and floatation devices, entering the lake from Circle Park around 8:15 a.m. The car was finally pulled on shore by Storm Lake Towing over four hours later.

Water under the ice was about 35 degrees, said diver Jason Kirschbaum. Mirky water conditions kept visibility to less than a foot.

It took Okoboji Underwater Recovery Specialists a little over four hours Friday to pull out the Nissan Xterra that had been sitting at the bottom of the lake for nearly 12 days after an accident that claimed the lives of Anthon man Zachary Newlon and his 8-year-old son, Blaire. Their rig, pictured that day, is capable of floating about 28,000 lbs., more than enough to pull the 2,600 lb. vehicle out.

"It's actually warmer under the water," with the equipment divers wear, than above it with the wind, according to diver Dave Nelson.

The SUV was found at the bottom of the lake, nestled in about a foot and a half of mud, where Jason didn't see it until he was touching it.

Divers, who took an inventory of what should have been in the vehicle before recovery, only had to search for a spud bar as they recovered the car--a piece of equipment typically used by ice fishers for ice holes and checking ice depth.

The vehicle was hooked up by 11:30, taking nearly another hour to bring to shore in below-zero windchill on what was forecasted to be a promisingly warm Friday, two days after extreme temperatures bottomed out from the polar vortex's visit to the Midwest.

Crews cut through the ice, which was about 16 inches thick, thanks in part to the polar vortex's visit, said Nelson.

Bob said ice density meters help measure the ice thickness to save a lot of drilling and draw a precise, safe path. After that, a camera is sent down to help place the position of the vehicle.

"Sometimes it's a straight shot, sometimes we're all over the place," he said. "Anything can happen. You can't see, you're going by feel down there."

Storm Lake Towing and the recovery team had the vehicle pulled to shore by 1 p.m. Friday. / Photo by Elijah Decious

Their rig out on the ice can float about 28,000 lbs., more than enough to get the Xterra that weighs about 2,600, he said.

Hydraulic recovery devices then help slide the car away from the hole and set it safely on the ice.

Inch by inch, they pulled the vehicle out of the water, letting the water drain out as it came up. The weight of the car only starts to become apparent to equipment when it breaks the surface coming up.

"There is no room for error out on that lake," Bob said. "You make a wrong move and it can jeopardize the whole operation."

After the car is out, a second diver typically goes into the lake, going to the bottom and checking under the surface of the ice for personal belongings that came out of the vehicle.

Using infrared devices and the light the ice allows to shine through, they take care to recover everything on the list before leaving.

"The Sheriff doesn't want anybody on [the car]," said Josh Kirschbaum, Bob's other son in the family business, over the two-way radio from the ice. Per Sheriff's orders, they tarp the vehicle before towing it to shore. The vehicle will be under the Buena Vista County Sheriff's Office's possession as part of an ongoing investigation in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

This recovery is only the second for Okoboji Underwater Recovery Specialists in which the accident involved a fatality. The last one was in Clear Lake several years ago, Bob said.

"It brought peace to the family," after the recovery, he said.

And that may be part of why they do anywhere from zero to 11 of these recoveries per year. "I do this to help out," Jason told a KTIV camera crew.

Safety equipment and underwater communication systems--built into face masks, are absolutely mandatory for the team. The communication system, in place for the last eight years, is critical for recoveries like this with low visibility, Nelson said.

"I fell in the water before," said Bob, describing what the experience of falling through the ice in a vehicle is like. "It's cold, it takes the air out of your lungs. You just got to slow down and start breathing again."

After a vehicle goes through the ice into the water, he says the pressure has to equalize before you can open the door again. He personally keeps the windows open when he's on the ice. Once the water hits the electronics for windows, you can't roll them down to escape.

But you never want to have an open door out on the ice, he said, as it will slam shut if things take a turn for the worse--cutting off any body parts in its way.

Bob says the cars recovered are typically salvageable, though insurance "wants nothing to do with them." He can get them dried and back up to speed through a meticulous drying process in a warm, humidity-controlled garage, back on the road within one to two months.

"We learn every time we do [a recovery]," he said.

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