By: Joanne M. Haas/WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
Climbing over curled steel, bent hoods and broken glass looking for the injured in a massive pile-up on Highway 41. Rescuing 30 stranded ice anglers in white-out conditions on the Bay of Green Bay. Keeping it safe and fun for thousands of American Birkebeiner racers and their supporters.
That was last weekend for your WDNR conservation wardens. Yup, one weekend. If there ever was an appropriate use for 'never boring,' February 23 -24 fits the bill.
So, what happened?
Warden Amanda Kretschmer, who serves Winnebago County, was on patrol nearby when she heard the dispatcher radio call for help regarding a massive pile-up on busy Highway 41 near Neenah in the Fox Valley on Sunday morning, February 24.
She made a beeline for the crash site, and, according to other law enforcement officers that arrived after, was seen crawling atop of vehicles looking for the trapped and the injured. As one officer told a fellow WDNR employee there to assist: "When I got there, I saw the warden crawling on top of vehicles checking on folks, and I was trying not to get impaled by steel."
Warden Amanda also was among those assisting crash victims who had been taken by bus to a local center, making sure some were receiving food and other needed assistance.
Winnebago County officials later told a news conference the pile-up likely was caused by whiteout conditions. And, sadly, one individual was killed. Seventy-one were taken to area hospitals for injury assessment and treatment.
Don't try to call her a hero because she will have none of that. Here's what she told WDNR Chief Warden Todd Schaller when he tried to compliment her:
"I did nothing more than my job yesterday. I'm just glad I was able to assist the Sheriff's Office when needed and that there were not more fatalities.
The joint efforts of numerous law enforcement agencies, ambulance services, firefighters, EMTs and private citizens was remarkable. As tragic as the crash was, it showed me how many good people there are in this world. The real thanks goes out to the private citizens that voluntarily assisted with victims whether walking them to an ambulance, lifting them over the concrete barriers or providing personal blankets, coats and seats in their warm vehicles."
Warden Amanda's efforts would have been enough for one day. But, wait there's more...
Three WDNR wardens, assisted by the Sturgeon Bay Fire Department and a good person who wanted to help, rescued 30 people from possible hypothermia Sunday afternoon from the Bay of Green Bay.
After that rescue was completed, one of the three WDNR wardens loaded up the snowmobile to answer a call to help two more stranded individuals from their stuck vehicle at Peninsula State Park.
The good news is there were no reported injuries to rescuers or the individuals in either rescue event.
Lt. Chris Groth, who heads the WDNR's Bureau of Law Enforcement's Marine Warden Team, says the call for help from the fishing group came in around 1 p.m.
A group of 29 ice fishers, accompanied by fishing guides, had gone out to fish from ice shanties on Larsen's Reef in the bay. The group had traveled about two miles from the shore onto the ice in enclosed vehicles that morning. However, as the morning turned into the afternoon, the gale-force winds of 40 to 50 mph had created drifts that made it impossible for the group's vehicles to move.
It was whiteout conditions," Lt. Chris said. That meant even if the vehicles were able to move, chances of them successfully finding the shore also may have been difficult.
Wardens Mike Neal, Jordan Resop and Joshua Voelker arrived at the shore with their snowmobiles, along with a personnel and snowmobiles from the Sturgeon Bay Fire Department. "Plus, a good Samaritan who had a snowmobile also joined in the rescue for a total of 6 snowmobiles," Lt. Chris said.
Because the conditions were winter at its most intense, the rescuers left the shore as a group to ensure their safety - and did so with successive runs. "Warden Resop was the last in the line and couldn't see the lead snowmobile due to the whiteout conditions," he said.
They found all the people, and started their runs back to shore. "Some of the people fishing were not dressed for transport by snowmobile," Lt. Chris said. So, on a return trip, the wardens brought exposure suits to protect those without proper winter wear protection from the elements as the trip was made back to shore on the back of the snowmobiles or on a sleigh that was brought on return trips for more.
But the rescue missions were not over when the last of the fishing group was returned to shore, another call for help had come in from nearby Peninsula State Park in Door County. Warden Mike Neal loaded his snowmobile and made a run for the park. He found two inside a vehicle that was trapped as the blizzard-like winds created impassable roads and 6-foot drifts. Warden Mike got the two out of the area on his snowmobile and to safety.
The WDNR wardens made a return appearance -- at the request of local officials -- teamed with other law enforcement agencies to help secure the race course and fan-viewing areas for what is the largest cross-country ski race in North America. The American Birkebeiner race series, which brings about 10,000 competitors plus their fans, to enjoy three or more events: the 50-km freestyle and the 55-km classic races from Cable to Hayward, Wisconsin. Another popular is the 29 km Kortelopet -- which Warden Ken Thomson (remember the warden on the skates) has done 23 Birkebeiners! WOW!
The snow and atmosphere made for perfect conditions. Here are few of the wardens' favorite picture from the February 23 event.