A 7-year-old Alaskan Klee Kai named Pepper was taking a morning walk with his owner in Chicago when disaster struck.
The dog got off his leash, slipped on some icy rocks, and landed about two feet onto ice sheets in Lake Michigan. Pepper tried to clamber back up to his owner, but the ice he was on cracked and began to float away.
Time is of the essence in incidents like this. Considering how frigid the lake is, hypothermia can set in “within a matter of minutes,” according to Fire Deputy District Chief Jason Lach.
Luckily, Chicago Fire Department (CFD) divers were already nearby for a routine morning practice of underwater dives. In less than 10 minutes, about 40 responders came to rescue Pepper. There came a truck full of divers, a fire truck, a fire engine, a field officer, two ambulances, and a helicopter.
Officials in the aircraft spotted the dog on an ice chunk about 500 feet away from the shore. Lach said Pepper was “very scared but friendly,” and his owner was understandably distressed.
Veteran firefighters Emerson Branch and Chris Iverson dove into the cold water to retrieve Pepper.
The dive team tethered lines and laid out two 15-foot ladders above icy rocks so that Branch and Iverson could safely slide into the water.
Iverson, donning a full-body thermal suit, swam to the dog in less than five minutes. However, Pepper got nervous and grewled, then fell off the ice chunk into the freezing water.
But the canine got up, and Iverson caught hold of him, placing him in a safety sling. The dog, all wet, snuggled up to his rescuer.
Branch swam out with a Rapid Deployment Craft and helped Iverson and Pepper climb onto the craft before guiding them back to shore.
The entire rescue lasted for around 15 minutes.
Lach said Pepper “looked like a blooming fur ball when we got him out of the water and unwrapped him. It was all fur, because it was so wet, just kind of in all directions. It looked like more fur than dog.”
Firefighters wrapped the pup in a blanket, and police officers formed a hand-off chain over the rocks to reunite Pepper with his worried owner.
The dog was taken to Veterinary Emergency Group Hospital, where the staff made sure he was okay, which thankfully he was.
The two rescuers’ suits were covered with ice, but they were both unharmed.
Dive accidents are pretty common. Last year, Lach and his Air & Sea Rescue Unit received over 60 calls for the incident, covering everything from ponds, creeks, rivers, and streams between Evanston and Indiana. In the past three years, they’ve pulled five animals, mostly dogs, out of the ice.
Divers train for these life-saving missions at least once a day all year.
The CFD started training for subsurface dives—where they are completely submerged under the ice—at 31st Street Harbor just this January.
“Diving with the ice is extremely dangerous for us. Our equipment will freeze up in a matter of minutes,” Lach said. “But we get people that fall through the ice. They think ice is safe.”
The fire chief said that the ice in Chicago can crack and cause a soft spot with the touch of a twig. He hopes Pepper’s incident will serve as a precautionary tale for others.
“The dog was good, warmed up to its owner, and went on its merry way.” Lach said. “But stay off the ice. It’s never safe. … Step into a hole, and you’re out of sight.”
We’re so glad that Pepper made it out of the ice. Great job to everyone involved in this rescue!
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