CONVICT LAKE, Calif. — Seven people apparently drowned in this freezing Sierra lake Monday, three of them teen-agers on a holiday skating party and four would-be rescuers. Another youth and a volunteer fire chief were plucked from the lake to safety.
Witnesses described a dramatic and ultimately futile effort to rescue all the victims, in what ranks among the worst tragedies of its kind in the United States in at least a decade. The victims lingered in the water for up to 15 minutes before succumbing, one witness estimated.
"We could see them bobbing around," said volunteer firefighter Jim Lambert, one of the rescuers. "The captain (on the ice) could hear someone saying, 'Throw me a rope!' "
One of the survivors, identified by several sources as volunteer fire chief Chris Baitx, plunged through the ice as he tried to reach the teen-agers, who were residents of a nearby nonprofit probation-type camp. Attached to Baitx was a 14-foot aluminum ladder, which pulled him down.
Three times, he made his way back to the surface and punched his arms and head through the ice long enough to gather a breath before the ladder dragged him down again, a witness said. After his third effort, a diver was able to pull him to safety.
As night fell and the search for bodies was suspended, a new layer of ice formed on the lake to entomb the victims.
Mono County Sheriff-Coroner Martin Strelneck said officials have ruled out any chance that victims remained trapped--but alive--in air pockets under the ice, which was from one to three inches thick.
"It would not be a possibility," he said, adding: "The rescue attempts were futile."
Strelneck said there was a slight chance that one of the youths was unaccounted for but safe. But the strong probability, he said, was that all seven died. Aircraft flew over the lake before dusk and found no evidence that anyone survived, he said.
"The worst scenario we're working with is seven fatalities," Strelneck said.
The three youths were clients of Camp O'Neal, which handles troubled youngsters ages 13 to 16 from throughout California. The camp is located across U.S. 395 from the lake.
Two of the adult rescuers killed were counselors from the camp, Strelneck said. The third was an employee of the U.S. Forest Service, and the fourth a volunteer firefighter with the Long Valley Fire Department's rescue team.
"They were successful at getting one kid back," Strelneck said.
The names of the victims were not released, nor was that of a 15-year-old camp resident who was pulled from the lake. He was released from Centinela Mammoth Hospital Monday night. Baitx, the volunteer fire chief, was held overnight for observation.
The incident apparently began shortly after noon at Convict Lake, a picturesque vacation spot in the mid-Sierra that is favored by trout fishermen. The lake is set in a granite bowl just north of Crowley Lake and southeast of Mammoth Lakes.
Full details of the trip were not known Monday, but Strelneck said initial information indicated that several children from Camp O'Neal went over to the lake early Monday. Other sources said they were skating on the lake that had frozen just over the weekend.
The camp handles juveniles who have been declared wards of the court because of minor offenses, local officials said. A spokeswoman for the camp declined to comment Monday night. "At this point in time, I can't give you any information," she said.
But witnesses said that when the children were about 200 yards offshore, the ice apparently broke and they plummeted into the frigid water. The first rescuers were camp counselors who were either playing with the children or immediately nearby. Two of them also fell through the ice and apparently died, Strelneck said.
The second wave of rescuers brought the Forest Service employee, who lived at the lake, and the volunteer firefighter who also was believed to have died.
Lambert, one of the rescuers, said rescuers struck out across the ice with ladders, ropes and small rubber boats, hoping to be able to reach across to the victims without falling in themselves. Divers followed on their stomachs, seeking thicker parts of the ice.
Baitx and the volunteer firefighter who apparently drowned were closing in on the initial victims when "all at about the same time the ice gave way," he said.
A diver from the June Lake search and rescue team inched along with a rubber boat to Baitx's position, but was unable to rescue the firefighter, Lambert said. By the time Baitx was rescued, he said, all of the other victims had slipped under the surface.
"It seemed like they were out there forever," Lambert said.
At its height, the search effort included 60 to 70 people--local volunteer firefighters, paramedics and sheriff's deputies.
Authorities have called in the Washoe County, Nev., sheriff's diving team to search under the ice after dawn today. The California Office of Emergency Services will also be providing support, Strelneck said.
The sheriff-coroner said officials at Convict Lake had no choice but to call off the search late Monday.
"We certainly don't want this happening to anyone else; that's why operations were suspended," he said.
Sheriff's deputies declined to release the names of the victims until the next of kin have been notified.