OPP pilot downplays role in ice rescue
March 14, 2012, Barrie, Ont. - Provincial police Sgt. Dan Mulligan doesn't think he's a hero. But there a couple dozen ice fishermen and firefighters who would disagree.
By Carey Fredericks
Mulligan is the cool-as-a-cucumber helicopter pilot who plucked the anglers two-by-two off an ice floe that was heading out from Kempenfelt Bay into Lake Simcoe Friday afternoon.
He's been a helicopter pilot since 1981, when he joined the OPP, and has been flying for the force for 11 years.
And while he's pretty much seen it all during his years in the pilot's seat, Friday's daring rescue operation was a little different, even for him.
Before the massive ice floe broke away from the Oro-Medonte shoreline before lunch time, it was stable. But after if began its journey to the open waters of the lake, Mother Nature's wrath began to pound it to pieces with half-metre or more high waves with white caps and winds estimated to 60 to 70 kilometres per hour.
"I was shocked how rapidly the wind and the waves broke it up into smaller pieces," Mulligan said Monday morning from a Ministry of Natural Resources hangar in Muskoka.
"I haven't experienced that before. It was down to a crunch time," he said. "We recognized we didn't have a lot of time so that put the pressure on."
As much as Mother Nature played a part in creating the dangerous conditions of the rescue, she was also responsible for Mulligan even being able to come to the aid of the fishermen and the firefighters who were trying to save them.
"It was pure luck that I happened to be sitting at Orillia," he said. "I was heading up to Sudbury around 10 a.m. and hit a wall of snow at Waubaushene and turned back. Otherwise, I would've been up in Sudbury at noon (when the call came in) and wouldn't have been able to get back down in time."
As it turns out he did, and those fishermen will be forever grateful.
The Eurocopter EC-135 Mulligan was flying — along with tactical flight officer Sgt. Daryl Grenville — has a gross weight of 6,400 pounds, more than enough to cause the ever-dwindling floes to break up even smaller, not to mention potentially tossing him into the water.
"A pilot can control how much weight he puts down on a surface," he said, adding in this case, that was weight was zero.
So he was forced to hover inches above the ice.
"It looked a lot more difficult than it was."
These kinds of rescues are certainly "not common," he said.
"The wind was responsible for the quick deterioration of the ice and made (the rescue) more work in the low hover," he said. "I had to anticipate the extra weight as (the anglers) climbed onto the skids."
While Mulligan declined to comment on the decision-making skills of the fishermen — saying only "there's no question they were glad to see us" — he had nothing but praise for the firefighters who put their lives on the line save them.
"I give all the credit in the world to those firefighters. There's no question it was a helluva team effort," he said.
"Some firefighters had already been in the drink once. Their work space was growing smaller by the minute," he added. "Some of the firefighters got blown off the ice floes. I can guarantee you, (even with their survival suits) it was wasn't warm."
Two-thirds of Mulligan's flying for the OPP involves search-and-rescue operations.
"A lot of people go missing in this province," he said. "And with the changing demographics, we're seeing a lot more dementia-related searches."
The other third of his flying time is in a support role for front-line personnel transporting the canine or tactical units as well as the underwater search and recovery dive team when they can't drive their units where they need to go.
"Everybody went home," OPP Sgt. Peter Leon said, summing up the rescue efforts. "The pilot was quite spectacular — there is a lot of years of experience and training they do — and the volunteer firefighters from Oro-Medonte Township were, too. They drop what they're doing and put themselves in harm's way.
"There was two hours of high adrenaline out there on the high seas of Lake Simcoe. All the firefighters, police and paramedics came together. It was really an amazing co-ordinated effort."
Leon said "there was a little bit of luck" as far as Mulligan's helicopter being in Orillia the way it was.
"It totally could've gone the other way. When I looked out my window (from the OPP headquarters in Orillia) I could see him heading south in a snow squall. Every one of those minutes counted."
Mulligan said the use of a helicopter was critical.
"There is no question in my mind that we would have lost a minimum of 10 people without a helicopter. They wouldn't last very long in that water," he said. "Obviously, the Big Guy had other plans for these folks."