Life-Saving Rescue Sends Chilling Message
by Tom Rau

If ever the claim for the existence of guardian angels needed validation it would be the recent life-saving rescue of Billy McKeon in the icy waters of Lake Michigan on February 20, 2007. While walking on the Frankfort breakwater the 45-year-old Mckeon slipped off the icy surface. Unable to climb up onto the ice, he floundered in the 33-degree waters of Lake Michigan. His fate all but certain lay in the hands of guardian angels.
A Coast Guard HH 65C helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City airlifts Billy Mckeon from 33-degree waters of Lake Michigan after he slipped off the Frankfort breakwater.
Photo: Bob Paetschow.

His guardian angels, however, turned out not to be a celestial form but rather an earth-bound good Samaritan. Carol Stack told Roland Halliday, editor of the “Benzie Record Patriot,” she was walking her dog on the beach: “I saw this person out on the breakwater and all of a sudden he disappeared.
“I stopped and I didn’t see him come back in sight. Then I heard him yell. I didn’t have my cell phone with me, and I ran to the house to call the Coast Guard. I heard him yell four times,” said Stack.
Stack said she is only one of a few people who live along the beach who stay there in winter. At about the same time Stack was making her call, a man dropped by Station Frankfort to report a person had fallen off the breakwater.

The Station Frankfort crew responded at 2:09 p.m.. It took the four-man rescue team approximately 12 minutes to reach the location of Mckeon. “We proceeded at a fast walk,” said Mike Davis, the team leader. The crew’s ice rescue gear included boots with cleats that provided transition on the slippery ice. The entire length of the breakwater lay shrouded in ice caked on by waves.

Davis figures McKeon fell in approximately 1700 feet out from the base of the breakwater. “We couldn’t see him, but we could hear him calling ‘help,’ ‘help’.”

The rescue crew followed his cries and spotted McKeon in the water at the base of a slope of ice. “He was in the water on the lake side, and we tossed him a life sling,” said Davis. The four coasties could not pull Mckeon up and over a lip of ice that extended out over the water’s edge. Time was rapidly ticking against the rescue efforts. “I told him to hold on and keep his arms close to his body. ,” said Davis. Except for tennis shoes, the victim was wearing all cotton wear: jacket, pants, shirt.
I’m finding out firsthand from a Coast Guard Station Manistee ice rescue team what it’s like to be a victim in an ice rescue. The best ice rescue tool is to avoid being a victim in the first place — believe me!

Even if the Coast Guard and the Frankfort fire department ice rescue team, which had also responded, could muster up a boat to reach Mckeon, the time it would take would not be time enough. The time crunch coupled with logistical challenges during cold water ice rescues can leave little room to execute options. Fortunately Coast Guard air was an option available in this rescue. From the get go, Davis had requested air support from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, which is located just 40 miles north of Frankfort.

“When we were hovering over the breakwater, I could see our guys and a line running down a slope of ice and over the edge,” said Coast Guard rescue swimmer Noel Hutton. “As the flight mechanic lowered me down, the pilot eased away from the pier. I spotted a man clinging to rocks underneath a lip of ice.

“When I reached him I could see he was very hypothermic. Ice was building on his cotton clothing,” said Hutton. The crew hoisted Mckeon aboard the HH-65C helicopter. He was transported to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City and later released.

I asked rescue swimmer Noel Hutton, an Alaskan Coast Guard veteran, how much longer McKeon would have been able to survive and he estimated around 10 minutes. It was that close. I praised his aircrew for a life saved, and he said, “Thank our guys on the deck. Had they not stabilized the situation until we arrived, it would have all been for naught.”

Good as they are and dedicated as well, they do have limitations, and this rescue found them on the outer limit of those limitations. I asked Mike Davis what should have Mckeon done to help himself. “Not be out there in the first place,” he said.
Ice Safety Tips:
During February 2007, Ninth Coast Guard District units, which are located throughout the Great Lakes, have responded to more than 17 search-and-rescue cases where people were in distress on the ice. Three of these cases were fatal. Some of those cases include:
• FEB 7 - A missing ice fisherman in Saginaw Bay, Mich. A search by Coast Guard Station Saginaw Bay found the man deceased. The gentleman went fishing by himself often and was considered a very experienced ice fisherman who knew the area and the hazards of the ice.
• FEB 10 - Five snowmobilers fell through the ice in Sodus Bay, N.Y. All five were able to save themselves, but lost their machines.
• FEB 20- A man slipped off the Frankfort breakwater into 33-degree Lake Michigan. Coast Guard crews from Station Frankfort and Air Station Traverse City responded. A Coast Guard rescue swimmer helped airlift the man to safety.
• FEB 22 - Two ice fisherman were stranded on an ice floe off of Toledo, Ohio. Coast Guard Station Toledo and Air Station Detroit responded and recovered both men.
• FEB 24 - Two people fell through the ice in Saginaw Bay. Coast Guard Station Saginaw Bay and Air Station Detroit recovered both individuals. One person was treated for hypothermia, the second was pronounced dead at the hospital.
• FEB 28- Two boys, ages 13 and 8, were rescued after falling off a mound of ice into Lake Michigan. A Coast Guard Muskegon crew responded and rescued the boys.
Snowmobile operators, ice fishermen, and others recreating near ice should pay heed to weather forecast calling for temperatures in the mid 30s or 40s. Warming trends, especially during March, can produce unstable ice. The following ice-rescue survival tips mostly apply to snowmobilers; however, they also apply to anyone who recreates on or near ice.
• Do not operate a snowmobile on ice over water at night.
• If several snowmobilers are operating on ice, they should not run in tandem, but spread out fore and aft so if one breaks through the ice the other can assist.
• Carry a length of nylon line with a small weight on the end. This could be used to assist another person who fell through the ice. I prefer the “rescue heaving line”, which is a 70-foot, 3/8-inch braided synthetic line with a flotation ball at the end.
• Should an operator break though the ice, do not accelerate: it could carry you further away from ice into open water and out of reach of help or climbing back onto the ice.
• Carry two ice awl picks attached together with a line you can wear around your neck. Place the awls in an upper pocket so they don’t ride over your neck if you plunge into water. In the water, there’s less chance of losing one or both awls if attached to a line. Should you end up in the water, pick with the awls and kick with your feet to pull yourself onto solid ice.
• Carry a marine radio or cell phone and red flares in a water tight plastic bag, also carry a whistle. Wear a life jacket or flotation suit. At night, carry a strobe light. A hand-held GPS in a water-tight bag could prove to be a life saver. Deploy these devices immediately, before hands grow numb.
• Place reflective tape on your foul-weather suit. Wear full body protective suit with insulation and thermal underwear.
• Always check the weather and ice conditions before any trip out onto the ice. Ice thickness is not consistent.
• Always tell family and friends where you are going and when you are expected to be back — and stick to the plan.
• Use the buddy system. Never go out on the ice alone. If you choose to go out on the ice alone, stay in an area where other people can see you and that they have the means to summons help.
• Beware! Stable ice can turn unstable in hours. Take special note of warming trends in March. Ice near stream outlets into open water can be unstable.
• And lastly, lay off the alcohol while operating a snowmobile: over the last ten years, 61 percent of Michigan snowmobile fatalities involved alcohol and drugs.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or
through local bookstores.

All contents are copyright (c) 2007 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.