Convict Lake sparkled under the crisp winter sky of the Sierra Nevada. Surrounded by two-foot snow banks, the ice above crystal clear waters invited daring souls with a siren song of beauty ... and treachery.
Trained rescue people know a frozen mountain lake is the most illusive of natural phenomena. There is no such thing as "safe ice." It could be two to four feet dense in one place, but only a short distance away, pockets of warm springs bubbling under the surface might shrivel the thickness to a perilous few inches.
On a cloudless day in February, fifteen teenagers and two counselors from Camp O'Neal, a residential facility for troubled youth, were on a holiday outing at the lake. What began as an adventure ended in disaster.
Some of the boys stayed with Counselor Randy Porter on the breakwater by the marina, throwing rocks to break the shallow-water ice. Another group was about eight feet out on the ice, laughing and clowning around while Counselor Dave Meyers snapped pictures.
At first no one noticed five boys who were headed toward the middle of the lake. When Randy spotted them, they were already far out from shore.
"Hey, you guys ... get back here. It's dangerous out there!" His shouts fell on deaf ears.
Far out on the frozen lake, the boys heard a loud crack and looked down to see the ice fracturing beneath them. One boy shouted, "We shouldn't be doing this," and started back to shore. The other four boys forged ahead.
"I don't care if I die!" one boy shouted as he smashed the ice with his hiking boots.
Within seconds, the four boys fell into the freezing water as the loud crack of the ice fracture echoed through the canyon. Muffled screams coming from the middle of the lake could be heard on shore. Counselor Dave dropped his camera gear and began to race toward the sound of those frantic cries. With each step the ice gave way under his feet.
When Counselor Randy realized the danger, he immediately ordered the kids close to shore to get off the ice and instructed one of the wards to run to the ranger's residence for help. Then Randy headed out on the ice himself.
Dave reached the spot where the four boys had been hanging onto the edge of the ice, but only three were there. Shawn was gone. Without a wet suit, Dave's jeans and sweatshirt were frozen stiff, but he plunged into the ice-water and pushed Phil to the surface and coached him to crawl on his belly to the north shore, some two hundred feet away. Phil survived, but his buddy, Sellars, was unable to move, his body frozen to the surface of the ice. Dave and another boy, Ryan, struggled for life as hypothermia gripped their bodies.
On shore, Ranger Clay Cutter, caretaker for Convict Lake, had been called from his home by a hysterical boy. His wife, Teri, dialed 911 and reported to the emergency services dispatcher that four youths were "through the ice at Convict Lake." She told her three daughters, "Stay in the house," grabbed her binoculars, and headed to the lake that was consuming the lives of those caught in its freezing grip. She watched the entire event, including the valiant life-and-death battle her husband fought for the next forty-five minutes.
MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
In a mountain home twenty-five miles from Convict Lake, the beeper sounded for Reverend Russ Veenker, a man trained in underwater search and recovery and a skilled scuba diver. A few moments before, two of his friends, Doug Englekirk and Doug Nidevar, expert athletes themselves, had stopped to visit the Veenker family and hearing the urgent call, asked, "Can we help?"
While Kandy Veenker rushed to the phone to alert other rescue team members, Russ paused for a quick prayer. "Lord ... keep us safe." Prayer was SOP — Standard Operating Procedure — for Russ. He always prayed for the safety of the rescuers because many times they risked their own lives to save others. He knew that life-and-death situations were in God's hands.
"Get the rubber life raft and meet me at the lake," Russ instructed the two Dougs.
He gave Kandy a quick kiss and hug. "Love you." This was also SOP.
Kandy had great confidence in Russ's wilderness abilities and God's protection. But this time as he pulled out of the driveway, she felt oppressed by a vague presence of darkness. She began to pray more fervently.
FROM FEAR TO PANIC
Ranger Clay Cutter and Counselor Randy Porter watched helplessly as one boy slipped away under the surface. As they were moving on their hands and knees toward the large ice hole where another boy and Counselor Dave Meyers were struggling to keep their heads above water, suddenly the entire edge of the hole cracked and gave way. Randy fell into the water just as Clay's frozen hand lost its grip on Sellars. Convict Lake had claimed two victims.
On shore, emergency units had arrived and begun a rescue effort. Paramedic Chris Baitx and Fire Captains Vidar Anderson and Ray Turner obtained an aluminum fishing boat and began to push over the ice toward the hole. However, the thin layer gave way from the weight, spilling Captain Turner overboard. Baitx and Anderson rescued him before he sank below the surface. While this drama was being played, far out on the ice a frantic voice was heard.
"Hurry up!" screamed Ranger Cutter.
Paramedic Baitx retrieved a ladder from the boat and, tying one end of a rope to himself and the other to the ladder, grabbed a pike pole and, pushing the ladder ahead of him like a sled, crawled over the ice toward the victims.
At the ice hole, Baitx saw Counselor Randy and one of the boys holding to the end of a rope and Counselor Dave floating on his back a short distance away. Baitx headed toward Dave, but the ladder he was using for support turned into a slick slide and plunged him into the water.
Meanwhile, Captain Anderson, using two ladders like giant snowshoes, was sliding across the surface of the ice in another rescue attempt.
Then Dave disappeared. One more fatality. How many more lives would be claimed before this nightmare ended?
BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE
When Russ arrived on the scene he was not prepared for what he saw. There were a dozen or more fire volunteers standing on the breakwater looking at a couple of stick figures kneeling on the ice in the middle of the lake. They were Ranger Cutter and Captain Anderson, but no one on the shore could tell who they were.
Those on land were powerless. They could hear cries for help, but the voices were fading. When fire and rescue personnel are put in a situation they can't fix, it's like telling a small child to push a full-size cement truck around the block. Frustration turned to despair.
"How many out there?" Russ asked.
"We're not sure. We think three or four kids, a couple of counselors, Ranger Cutter, Captain Anderson, and Paramedic Baitx....
We don't have any communication with them."
Russ knew he had thirty to sixty minutes in thirty-four-degree water with his wet suit on to go into the ice water hole and push as many victims as possible to the surface.
He started out onto the ice, but was confronted with stark reality. Spider fractures were breaking out around his feet with every step. Lord, nobody should be out here. He dropped on his belly and began to crawl along the rope that was being held on shore and attached to someone out on the ice. His wet suit constricted body movement; it was like running a mile with manacles on your ankles.
Suddenly there was a muffled sound of splashing and yelling — the rope under Russ was being pulled toward shore. Baitx was being dragged through the razor sharp ice as the skin on his body ripped into bloody shreds. Behind him were three, apparently alive, victims in the water.
There are four of them, and only one of me, Russ thought. Terror moved through his body like a lightning bolt. Lord, help me!
He was about twenty feet from Baitx. Russ turned toward shore and with all of his might shouted, "Stop pulling the rope!" When he looked around, he could no longer see Counselor Randy.
In quick succession, Captain Anderson succumbed to the icy depths, only six feet from Russ's outstretched hand. He could still hear Ranger Cutter yelling for help about one hundred feet away.
Lord, this can't be happening! Russ cried out under his breath. By now Paramedic Baitx was submerged under the ice, but Russ plunged below him and pushed him to the surface.
"It's okay, buddy. This is Russ. I've got you. My wetsuit is buoyant."
Baitx moaned. He was still alive. However, the rope that was tied to his waist was also fastened to a fourteen-foot fire ladder, which was pulling him down. Russ dove under water to see if he could free Baitx from the ladder, but discovered the rope was wrapped around the paramedic's legs like a tangled mesh of fishing line.
"Russ," Baitx murmured through purple lips. "I can't make it ... tell my wife...."
"We'll make it. Hang in there." Russ answered calmly, but fear gripped him.
As the possibility of survival waned, the two Dougs arrived, sliding through the broken ice with a life raft. Later Russ realized that it was no accident that the Lord sent those men at that moment to play a vital, life-saving role.
After loosening the rope from Baitx's legs, they lifted him onto the raft and pushed to shore. Russ began to swim in the direction of the voice he had heard calling for help, but after a few strokes, he realized that nobody was there. All he could see was a jacket, a few gloves, and a couple of wool caps sitting on the surface.
Convict Lake had claimed its seventh victim, Ranger Clay Cutter.
TRAUMA ON SHORE
Baitx was rushed to the emergency hospital by members of his own paramedic team. When his gurney was pushed through the double emergency door, a shocked and horrified nurse, Lori Baitx, looked down at the battered, nearly frozen body of her husband.
After the ambulance left the lake, the crowd on shore began to realize what had happened. "Where's Vidar? Where's Clay? Did you see Randy or Dave out there? What about the boys?" The horror of reality set in. Teri Cutter was in shock. She had watched her husband fight for life until the very end.
Russ fell on his knees in the snow. He was too emotionally spent to stand. He heard his radio "crackling" in the background with the report, "We have seven confirmed fatalities ... four, I think, were rescuers."
Because one man had the proper equipment, another man's life was saved. Tragically, because warnings were ignored on that fateful day, it was too late for the seven who plunged to their freezing death on the lake that was rightly named. It was, indeed, a brutal convict.
WILL WE LISTEN?
The warnings are posted today. THIN ICE AHEAD. Our eternal destiny is determined by whether we heed the signs or ignore them. Rescuers may want to save us, but it could be too late.
The final days for all the inhabitants of planet earth have been recorded for almost two thousand years. In our time, those signs are becoming closer and bolder.
The decade of the nineties saw tremendous changes in the world. The high-decibel threats of communism became less threatening as governments were toppled and new leaders emerged. Many oppressed people experienced a freedom they had never known.
Time magazine had a cover story showing the heads of the world's two most powerful countries smiling at each other over the words, "Building a New World."
Although we may rejoice that old animosities have dissolved and experience new hope for peace in the world community, at the same time we suspect that we are being lulled into a false security.
Warnings have been posted about dangers ahead. We can either watch and listen or ignore them.
The signs of the time are on a fast track, pointing to the final days of Bible prophecy. It's true that many people shrug their shoulders and say, "Is this like the guy who said the end of the world would come on September 16, 1988? Come on now! I've heard this stuff before."
The apostle Peter said: "First, I want to remind you that in the last days there will come scoffers who will do every wrong they can think of and laugh at the truth. This will be their line of argument: 'So Jesus promised to come back, did he? Then where is he? He'll never come! Why, as far back as anyone can remember, everything has remained exactly as it was since the first day of creation' " (2 Peter 3:3–4, tlb).
There is a book in the Bible that scoffers should read. It contains warnings far more solemn than those directed at the young men on Convict Lake.
The book of Revelation predicts the climax of the ages and the sequence of events leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, this book explains where every person will be for all eternity.
WHO CAN PREDICT THE FUTURE?
When someone asks me, "When is your birthday?" I become wary. I don't believe they plan to send me a present. They probably want to know what sign I live under so they can tell me how to run my life. In spite of the nonsense of astrological predictions, most of the major newspapers in the country continue to carry these columns, and many people use these silly predictions to determine how they will plan their daily activities and future goals. Even people who are prominent in public life consult astrologers and psychics, searching for answers to life's complexities.
God predicts the future with inerrant accuracy. He knows the end from the beginning. However, He gives us the guide for the present. "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34).
We are not to worry about tomorrow, but He wants us to understand the future so we will know how to live today. His Book is filled with predictions that have already been fulfilled. Look at just a few of them.
TRUE TO DATE
In the Old Testament there are more than three hundred references to the coming Messiah that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In Genesis 3:15 we find the first reference to the fact that the Savior of the world would be born of the "seed" of the woman (kjv). This ancient promise predicts a struggle between Israel's Messiah and Satan, and it foretells the Messiah's eventual victory.
The prophet Isaiah tells that the Messiah will be born of a virgin. It was prophesied that He would be the Son of God and that He would trace His humanity to Abraham, father of the Jewish nation. He would come from the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Micah foretold that He would be born in Bethlehem and the psalmist wrote that He shall be called Lord.
It was predicted that the coming Messiah would be a prophet, a judge, and a king. This Man whom the Jews were waiting for (and many are still seeking) would be more than an ordinary human being, for the Spirit of the Lord would give Him wisdom and knowledge beyond our comprehension.
To me, prophecy is the most absorbing study in the Bible. The coming Messiah's ministry was described in such detail that no other person could have fulfilled the description.
THE PERFECT RESUME
Imagine a twentieth-century executive recruiter listing these requirements for a chief executive officer:
An unqualified recommendation by a community leader (John the Baptist).
His term of office is to begin in Galilee.
He must perform miracles.
He must teach his management team by using illustrations.
He should expose dishonest members of the firm and fire them.
He must bring a new era of understanding and wisdom to a faltering company.
From all of the applicants, one Man alone steps out of history and says, "I'm your Man." He fills every requirement so perfectly that the search team would be overwhelmed.
Some Old Testament prophets were instructed to give doleful predictions. More than seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah said that He would be despised, wounded, bruised, and oppressed (Isaiah 53:3, 5, 7). The same old prophet said He would be crucified with thieves and rejected by His own people.
When we see the prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus, how can we doubt that He was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God? The cruel manner in which He would die, the grave where He would be buried, and His glorious resurrection were predicted by holy men, led by God to write His inspired Word.
After Jesus was resurrected, He appeared to His disciples over a period of forty days and told them many things. They must have listened with an intensity they had never experienced before, with a new urgency in their questions: "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Jesus told them, as He had before, that they were not to know the time of His return and the establishment of His kingdom, but to watch for the signs of the times. As they were pondering this answer, He suddenly was lifted out of sight and disappeared into a cloud.