Unique flotation device saving lives of Minnesotans who go through ice

The tragedies that mark our Minnesota winters are as constant as the ice itself.

In northern states where lakes and rivers are frozen playgrounds, nearly 100 people die each year when vehicles large and small crash through into frigid water. Some people survive, but they often wish they'd had more time and a way to save someone else.

But, there’s now a flotation device that is saving lives in Minnesota when things don’t go as planned out on the frozen water. 

The Nebulus Emergency Flotation Device exists today because John Weinel can't forget the day one of his neighbors, a young and newly married man, went through the ice near his house.

“My wife and I got up the next morning and looked outside and there were cops and divers on the ice. I took my binoculars and there was a helmet lying on the ice, and I realized he'd gone through on his snowmobile and had had the presence of mind to take his helmet off, but could not get out of the hole in the ice and died,” Weinel said. “I told my wife it's too bad there wasn't some sort of inflatable device that could have saved him.”

So John, along with some engineers at the University of Minnesota, invented one. The briefcase-sized device clips and straps firmly to whatever machine you're using. Two carbon dioxide canisters inflate a hidden raft large enough to hold two grown men and keep a snowmobile, ATV or UTV from sinking to the bottom.

The flotation device is now used by most law enforcement and rescue teams in Minnesota and has already been put to several real life tests this winter.

Last month, the Nebulus was used to save a father and his four-year-old daughter when their UTV crashed through the ice near Alexandria.

The little girl, Aubrey Wolf, was carried safely off the ice by rescue personnel after a Nebulus was used to pluck her and her dad, Patrick, from the waters of Lake Ida.

They were heading out on the UTV to meet family for some ice fishing when Patrick unknowingly ventured onto thin ice.

"The first thing that went through my head was actually, ‘Oh, this is how it ends’,” Patrick said. “I had just enough time to tell Aubrey to take her seat belt off and then we started to go under.”

As their UTV sank, Patrick grabbed Aubrey and climbed to the top of the fully submerged machine. A 911 call from witnesses on the shore had rescue personnel on the way. A Nebulus was eventually pushed out to them, and they climbed aboard.

The dad and daughter beat the odds with quick thinking and quick help coming in the form of a small package that proved to be a big lifesaver. 

“Just to have that flotation device come across, it's a nice thing,” Patrick said.

The flotation device provides a peace of mind in a state like Minnesota, where winter fun for many is a state of mind.