The ice was hard and cold and shone only faintly in the flickering lights from the trucks. The black water wound in it didn't seem to reflect anything. Even if a struggling dog hadn't managed to pull free from the already refreezing lake as they had pulled up; the set of footprints in the thin snow leading to, but not away from, the cracked edge of the ice would have told the story to the firefighters and the dive team.
It seems to take a very long time to put on a dry suit, especially if you are watching someone do it for the first time, especially if while you are watching them your son is in the embrace of that cold, black, lifeless water. He lies in it, hidden from sight but not from hopes and prayers, by the water's hard winter shell. A shell that on this dark Christmas Eve night was neither hard nor thick enough.
The rescue team proceeds with a meticulous thoroughness that is maddening. Equipment is checked and rechecked, but in some very few minutes the diver and his tender are on the ice. The tender is carrying the diver's lifeline, another line to shore, and the ice anchor. The diver has his hands full with tank and fins. They reach the open water and the tender screws the ice anchor in. The rope attached to it will be the only way the diver can find his way home, back to light and warmth and air. Like a seal the diver, having given his gear one last check, disappears from view. His helmet light shines for scant seconds before it is swallowed up as well.
The water is bitter, even through the dry suit with its hood and full face regulator the diver can feel the bite. His hands and feet are in neoprene, not dry gloves and booties, and the cold causes them to instantly lose sensation. The diver knows that when he gets back to the warmth sensation will return, with the unfriendly attack of thousands of pins and needles. Right now the diver hopes he will get a chance to feel that, and soon. Every second counts. The hole in the ice is small, the water still. The initial dive will be the best chance to bring the boy back. Every entry will make the hole bigger and increase the search area. Every dive devours seconds that the victim can’t afford to lose. The diver is negatively buoyant, head down, arms out, searching for the bottom. On the first circular sweep his nearly numb hands find the boy. Three hard tugs on his lifeline will tell the tender he has found the victim.
The tugs find something else though, they find a flaw in the ice that darkness and snow concealed as the ice anchor was screwed in. On the second tug the ice breaks with a loud crack and the tender leaps after the escaping ice screw. His momentum overturns the sheet of ice his is on and now the water has reached for him. The anchor, with its all too well named lifeline goes skittering into the lake and disappears with a soft splash.
The diver knows he is in trouble instantly. His third tug has brought him a slack line. It lies limp in his hand, just as the boy does in the crook of his arm. He doesn't know how it happened, but now he is in an ice diver's most terrible nightmare, only made worst by the fact that he was moments from bring the victim up. The diver knows he has enough air to await rescue. All he has to do is float upwards to the ice and stay put. The backup diver will find him before his time runs out. The boy’s time is ticking off from a much faster clock. The hole to air must be found quickly or the backup diver won't matter for the victim.
On the surface the tender has regained the stable ice, protected by his bright orange immersion suit. He is calling to shore and the backup diver and tender begin their slow walk out to the black chasm in the ice. A couple looks on, arm in arm they are locked together, eyes wide as they stare into the darkness that seemed just a few seconds ago about to surrender their son, but is now cruelly taunting them again. The Fire Captain standing with them suddenly knows too well how they feel. His man is down and without a road home. It’s Christmas Eve; will his diver's family get that late night knock on the door? He is too much a professional to show this, especially in front of the victim's family, but these are the seconds that haunt firefighters and divers for the rest of their lives. He looks on: His team has already done what is needed. He too can only watch.
The diver makes a quick sweep upwards with his helmet light. It shows nothing but blackness, and the more powerful hand held lamp is no better. The diver knows that his team is aware of the problem, perhaps they will shine a light downwards. The diver turns his lamps off and peers upwards. In the blackness even the glitter of the ascending bubbles is gone. He waits for what seems like a lifetime, and may well be. Finally so faintly it may be his imagination a tiny glimmer appears. He turns his head and the glimmer stays in the same place. Hoping this is not an illusion he inflates is buoyancy compensator and begins his ascent.
His hand is outstretched. He is certain he will contact the unforgiving and impenetrable ice. Every inch upwards he thinks will be the last before he hits the ceiling and the boy's hopes are extinguished, but suddenly his hand is in the icy wind across the lake, above the cold black water and through the tiny hole in the ice. His helmet and facemask follow; ice starting to encrust them immediately. The diver has surprised the tender who was lying like a polar bear staring intently into the black water. Although startled the tender wastes no time in pulling the tiny limp form from the diver's outstretched arms. Getting a thumbs up from his diver the tender cradles the child to his bulbous orange suit and half waddles, half skates towards the edge of the ice. He is met part way by impatient paramedics. They take the child from him and begin administering oxygen and checking for the tiny pulse that will say this may have been worth it.
The diver is pulled from the water by his tender, both being careful not to stress the dry-suit on the sharp ice edge. Together, arms across shoulders, they cross the ice and find a warm staff car to sit in. Even before they get all the way off the ice the ambulance is screaming away. The pulse was tiny, but there.
The diver looks up from his steaming coffee, brought by a neighbor, just in case anyone needed it, to the face of his captain. "Thanks for shining the light Cap, I didn't think I'd find my way out."
The Captain looks puzzled for a minute. "I had all the lights turned off, just so your tender could maybe see where you were. I figured we'd have the backup diver find you by following your lights." The three of them stared at each other for a long moment and then they lifted their eyes skyward. Above them in the snowy winter sky was a single star, shining brightly through a small rent in the clouds, clear and intense. Soon, it too was gone as the wind driven clouds pushed past it.