As the frigid water and ice chunks poured into the open window, the pickup truck plummeted to the bottom of Lake Minnetonka and Ryan Neslund felt the surge of panic and fear.
“I was doomed,” said the 35-year-old paraplegic.
He was headed to his fish house on Lafayette Bay about 8 p.m. Wednesday. As he drove out on the lake, as he has nearly every day this season with his yellow Labrador retriever in the back seat, he followed the tire tracks in the snow. Then the tracks disappeared.
“There was a bare spot with no snow on it, and I said, ‘What the heck?’ But by the time it all registered in my brain, my whole truck nose-dived into the lake. Crash. Boom. Smack,” Neslund said Thursday night, sitting in his wheelchair at his home across the street from the lake.
“It took a millisecond to realize that this is actually happening and it’s not a bad dream,” he said.
As the front of the truck sank, he opened the truck’s electric window before it shorted out. “Otherwise, I would be trapped there forever.” Water and ice rushed into the cab. “It was like Niagara Falls,” he recalled. And within seconds, the truck was on the bottom of the lake and the cab was filled with water.
“I figured I was going to die,” Neslund said. But with a will to live and an inch of space — and air — left in the cab, Neslund breathed in all he could take in and pulled himself through the open window. He swam up about 10 feet, hitting the surface of the water, pushing away ice chunks as he swam to a shelf of ice.
Paralyzed from the chest down, his legs were dead weight. And there was nothing to grab to get atop the ice. So he dug his fingernails in. He scratched, dug deeper and pulled with every last bit of strength. Just as he almost got himself up, he slipped back into the water.
He wasn’t about to give up just yet. He reached up, dug in and pulled himself onto the ice.
With the wind blowing at 12 miles per hour, the 12-degree temperature felt more like 9-below. His sweatshirt stiffened and then froze almost solid.
He looked toward the hole in the ice, hoping his 8-year-old dog, Balou, would emerge. “He was the most precious thing that I had,” he said. “He’s all I had all day, every day.”
It was dark and silent, and he was at least a quarter-mile from shore.
“I couldn’t crawl to shore without freezing to death,” he said. He could only hope that someone would drive by.
So he yelled: “Help! Help! Help!”
“I figured I would scream until I couldn’t scream anymore,” he said. And then it would be over.
Instead, a teenager was standing out on his deck smoking and talking on his cellphone when he heard Neslund’s cries. He called 911.
Neslund figures he sat on the ice for about 40 minutes before he saw flashlights moving along the shoreline and sirens wailing.
“It took forever,” he said. “Or it seemed like it.”
An ATV sped by in the distance and Neslund yelled out, but he knew the rescuers on wheels couldn’t hear or see him. He couldn’t move; his frozen clothes encased him.
But he continued screaming with every breath he could muster, giving rescuers on shore a way to guide the deputies from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Water Patrol unit to him.
When they arrived, deputies stopped before reaching him, unsure of the thickness of the ice. Instead, the four deputies formed a human chain, he said. With the last deputy lying flat on his belly, he grabbed Neslund and they pulled him to safety.
“I still didn’t know if I was going to live,” said Neslund, who was taken to North Memorial Medical Center and treated for frostbite and hypothermia. “I never felt that cold before. My teeth were chattering for so long and so hard, I felt like they were going to shatter.”
A day later, Neslund, who was paralyzed in a 2011 motocross accident, is exhausted and hurting.
He’s glad to be alive, he said. “But I’m sad about my dog. If I could have saved him, I would have.”
Anne Millerbernd is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.