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Search for missing Massena snowmobile rider to resume

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MASSENA — Unsafe conditions in the icy Grasse River caused emergency crews to suspend the search for a missing snowmobile rider Tuesday afternoon, but officials held out hope the man might still be found when efforts resume this morning.

“Obviously you always want to be optimistic,” State Police Sgt. James A. Lobdell said Tuesday. “You always hope that somebody made it out, and could be in the wooded area” beside the river.

The rider, whose name was not released on Tuesday, was reported missing at about 11:30 p.m. Monday after venturing out on a fishing expedition earlier that day. Officials have said he is a Massena resident in his early 40s, and is believed to have been operating a black 1990s Arctic Cat Jag snowmobile.

Crews on Tuesday used a camera to locate what they believe to be the man’s snowmobile and other possessions in about 18 feet of water, St. Lawrence County dive master Mark T. Smutz said. Ice and poor visibility prevented a county diver from actually reaching the suspected wreckage, however.

“He couldn’t see anything,” Mr. Smutz said of the diver. “I’ve never seen the water there to be that murky and that dirty.”

The search is centered on a hole about 200 yards offshore, roughly 1,000 yards from where the Grasse enters the St. Lawrence River.

Family members told authorities the man had left at approximately 3:30 p.m. Monday to go ice fishing. He reportedly got onto the ice at the boat launch behind the AmVets post on the Snell Lock road.

Massena Fire Department Chief Thomas C. Miller said state police helicopters scanned the area Monday night, with Hogansburg-Akwesasne air boats searching the water. Fresh tracks eventually led rescuers to a hole in the ice, which is about 4 inches thick. A glove and a cell phone were found near the hole Monday night.

The initial search lasted until about 3 a.m. Tuesday, with efforts resuming later in the morning.

Air boat crews from Hogansburg-Akwesasne and Waddington firefighters assisted county divers. Rescue operations were staged on the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation property, where the agency’s ice breaker is housed.

Mr. Smutz said the hole through which the snowmobile apparently fell measured about 4-by-8 feet. His team used an underwater camera that detected what appeared to be the snowmobile and a cart the rider used to tow fishing equipment. They then created a separate, 20-by-20 foot hole for diver access.

The lone diver sent under was immediately stymied by poor visibility and swift currents that were carrying large amounts of ice downstream at up to 5 knots, or a little less than 6 mph. Mr. Smutz said he decided that conditions were too hazardous to send down any more divers, adding that ice and slush quickly clogged up the access hole as soon as the crewman was out of the water.

“Unfortunately, the risks are too great right now,” Mr. Smutz said.

Sgt. Lobdell said state police divers will take up the search this morning, possibly as early as daybreak, aided by sonar equipment being brought in from outside the area.

The incident comes just days after the state Department of Environmental Conservation released a statement urging the public to use caution before heading out for ice fishing due to unseasonably warm conditions. The agency warned that a minimum of 3 to 4 inches of solid ice is best for anglers heading out on foot.

“During warm winters such as the one we are currently experiencing, some anglers take risks that they would otherwise not take,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said. “Last year, safe ice did not form on many larger waters, but smaller lakes and ponds eventually provided sufficient ice for safe angling. Although the wait can be frustrating, falling through the ice is not a risk anyone should take.”

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