By DAVE RANK Daily News
TOWN OF WEST BEND — The water was cold and dark beneath the ice on Big Cedar Lake as 17 members of the Washington County Dive Team practiced search-and-rescue techniques Saturday morning.
(RT thanks the Richfield Fire Company for all their efforts)
The water temperature was about 37 degrees and diving in a water body where visibility was hindered by a covering of ice was a focus of the training, Konstanz said.
“Each department takes turns organizing a training session,” Konstanz said. “Today’s is the county’s turn to host.”
Formed in 2003, the county Dive Team has 22 members, Konstanz said. “We have a couple of guys who are in the process of training.”
The Washington County Sheriff’s and community departments from Kewaskum, Richfield, Slinger and West Bend house the team’s gear, Konstanz said.
The team formed in January 2003 after the death of 21-year-old Michael Mann, from the town of Trenton, who drowned after his snowmobile crashed through the ice on Big Cedar Lake.
Washington County did not have a rescue dive team at the time, having relied on volunteers with equipment for underwater searches. By 2003, those volunteers had retired.
Emergency personnel had to wait more than four hours before divers from Waukesha County arrived to search for Mann’s body.
“I was on the Mann call,” said Steve Inhof, a 14-year veteran with the West Bend Fire Department. “It was tough to wait for the Waukesha dive team.”
Inhof volunteered for the Washington County Dive Team almost seven years ago. “When the opening came up, I took advantage,” he said.
“It’s an important skill to have,” he said of his scuba diving training. “But, it’s an important service to have in the county, too. We do have so many lakes.”
Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Pagel with the Richfield Fire Department was one of the first volunteers for the county’s dive team. “I’ve been diving since 1978, recreational diving. There was a lot more to learn to do this.”
For the dive under the lake ice, team members wore what are called dry suits. “They’re insulated and are sealed at the neck,” Pagel said. “No water gets in. It does get cold but body heat warms (the suit).”
Lt. Chad Kernats of the Richfield Fire Department is another original member of the dive team. Unlike Pagel, Kernats learned scuba diving from scratch.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” he said. “So when the opportunity came, I signed up right away.”
Following Mann’s death, his family lobbied local officials and formed a fundraising volunteer group, Michael’s Angels, that continues to finance the Washington County Dive Team.