CFD breaking up ice on Chicago River amid cold snap

The Chicago Fire Department’s biggest icebreaker plowed through the frozen Chicago River on Wednesday.

With temperatures plunging below zero and in the single digits lately, the fire department’s Marine Unit has been busy trying to keep the river open.

It was just past 1 o’clock as the Chicago Fire Department’s Christopher Wheatley pulled away from its slip in DuSable Harbor. Its mission was to cut through the thick sheet of ice that has formed on the Chicago River since the boat last made the run two days ago.

"So a couple reasons we break up the ice. One, allow full access to a federal waterway here, being the river. Another is it prevents damage to all the concrete and super structures on both side, so it saves us time and money down the road," said Jason Lach, Deputy District Chief of CFD Marine and Dive Ops.

In addition, it creates open water in case divers need to make a rescue.

The Christopher Wheatley is 95-feet long and reinforced with steel and concrete, making it heavy enough to turn up to a foot and a half of ice into a jigsaw puzzle.

"It’s heavy enough for the job. Like I say it’s got a spoon bow, so it’ll ride up and sort of flatten the ice out," said boat pilot Bobby Lund.


During the coldest years, the boat will be out all winter. Last winter, they only needed it for a couple weeks, but now they are running it every couple of days.

They slice the ice all the way down to Wolf Point where the river splits north and south, then turn around and head back.

Remember, these same firefighters spent several hours earlier in the day freezing underneath the ice.

"We had scuba divers under 12 inches of ice practicing, getting used to being in that confined space," Lach said.

And in less than a half hour, it’s back to base, until the river freezes over again.