OCEAN CITY – The bitterly cold weather that has persisted for the last month or so, coupled with last weekend’s first significant snowfall of the year, has created a winter wonderland of sorts in the resort area with frozen ponds, creeks, canals and even large swaths of the bay, but danger lurks beneath the apparently frozen surface.
Frozen bodies of water have always held a fascination for young children and even some adults, but local officials this week are warning area residents the iced-over ponds, canals and streams may not be as safe as they appear. Because of the tidal, brackish nature of most of the bodies of water around the resort area, what often appears to be thick, safe ice is often fraught with danger.
“Many think that because a lake, pond or other body of water has been frozen for a few days, they can skate on the ice,” said Ocean City Fire Department spokesman Ryan Whittington this week. “It is important to understand that even though the ice may look strong and safe, there is always the danger of falling through the ice and into frigid water.”
Whittington said the department has been training firefighters and rescue personnel to handle possible thin ice emergencies for the last week or so. With school not in session because of the holiday break, combined with the latest blast of winter, conditions are ripe for a potential disaster, prompting fire department officials and rescue personnel to issue a warning to parents and their children this week.
“Walking and playing on ice is inviting and appears to be fun,” he said. “It is important that parents take the time to explain to their children of the dangers associated with playing on ice.”
For one local family, the message about the dangers of playing on thin ice still resonates. Nearly eight years ago, on Jan. 19, 2003, 8-year-old Sammy Wilkinson fell through the ice on a frozen pond at Northside Park after chasing a ball along with another boy. The second boy was pulled from the icy water after just about three minutes by a police officer and a paramedic who had jumped in after them, but Wilkinson submerged and did not recover.
He remained underwater for over an hour as rescuers searched the frozen pond and was eventually pulled from the icy water about 65 minutes later. Wilkinson was taken first to Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin before being flown to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
Sammy’s father, Bob Wilkinson, one half of the popular local acoustic duo Opposite Directions, said this week the ongoing message about the dangers of thin ice and its attraction for children is as timely now as it has ever been, especially with the ponds, canals and even the bay freezing over throughout much of the resort area.
“We don’t want anybody else to have to go through what we did and still do almost every single day,” he said. “Every time I drive across the bridge and see the bay and the canals frozen, I think about it.”
Wilkinson said the memories of that tragic day of have stayed with the family and will continue for the rest of their lives. He said he was somewhat surprised to realize recently it had been that long ago.
“For us, it could have been last week,” he said. “That’s how it feels for us some days.”
Sammy and the other boy were playing outside at Northside Park around 5:30 p.m. on that fateful day in January 2003 and chased a ball across what appeared to be the frozen surface of the pond. Like the current cold snap, temperatures had been at or below freezing for several weeks leading up to the tragedy.
“It looked frozen,” said Wilkinson. “They were just kids. They didn’t know any better. They were just being kids.”
Wilkinson recalled his own childhood, when winters were always long and cold and bodies of water were often frozen for months at a time.
“When we were kids, it seemed like every winter when it snowed we were out there with our skates,” he said. “We knew about it when we were growing up because we were around it more.”
However, most winters in Ocean City are relatively mild, save for a few recent exceptions, as warm ocean temperatures often temper prolonged stretches of extreme cold.
“We were just talking about it,” he said. “I think this is the first time since Sammy left us that it has been this cold for this long. Last year, was like this too. We never talked to our kids about it because it didn’t happen frequently around here.”
Wilkinson and his wife, Joanna, still believe a discussion with their children about the dangers of thin ice might have prevented the tragedy. It’s a message they hope will resonate with other parents in the area.
“We always ask ourselves what if we had had a discussion about the dangers of thin ice,” he said. “If we had that discussion, it could have ended differently.”
As long as there are harsh winters and frozen ponds, lakes, streams and bays, the danger will persist, if only because of the appeal of skating, sliding and playing on potentially thin ice.
“It’s an attraction for kids, and some adults too I guess,” he said. “It often looks like it’s frozen solid and is safe, but it isn’t.”