On thin ice: Rickety Prospect Park rescue ladders a danger, activists claim

Life savers: Firefighters from a rescue company on Bergen Street conduct ice rescue drills at Prospect Park's lake on Feb. 6, donning full-body buoyant survival wetsuits.
Community Newspaper Group / Natalie Musumeci

Damaged emergency rescue ladders around the banks of Prospect Park’s frozen lake put lives in jeopardy, park watchdogs claim.

The Parks Department sets up 43 rescue stations around the 60-acre waterway every winter, each equipped with a single eight-foot wooden ladder and signs in English and Spanish warning of the risk of thin ice.

But on a recent visit, one ladder was out of reach behind a waist-high chicken wire fence, while crucial attachments that allow for multi-ladder rescues were broken or missing at at least four sites. Those attachments are used to link two ladders in a common rescue strategy that better distributes weight across the ice while — keeping rescuers themselves from plunging into the freezing depths.

“The ladders give a misimpression to somebody who happens to come to the lake that thinks they are safe to use as they are,” said park watchdog Ed Bahlman, who claims the broken and missing pieces will make a link between two ladders unstable, if possible at all. “It may cost somebody their life.”

Parks Department spokeswoman Meghan Lalor said the ice rescue ladders are checked weekly and “fixed as necessary” by a maintenance crew.

“Parks staff last inspected the ladders in Prospect Park on Sunday, Feb. 3, and found that all equipment was in good condition and all signs were in place,” said Lalor, who noted that the ladders photographed for this story “appear to be functional.”

But that doesn’t mean you should grab one in an emergency — like when two men fell through ice into a frigid pond in Manhattan’s Central Park on Tuesday.

The Parks Department says its red ladders are “intended for use by trained rescuers only, not by the general public,” even though the signs at rescue stations say nothing of the sort.

Nailed: Some of the emergency rescue ice ladders in Prospect Park are missing key planks.
Community Newspaper Group

The fact the ladders are for the pros comes as a surprise to Prospect Park regulars, who say they would grab a ladder — damaged or not — if they see someone plunge into the lake.

“My first instinct would be to use the ladder even if it was broken,” said Kensington resident Jena Battaglia. “It’s human nature to act on first instinct and help someone out. Why would the ladders even be there if they weren’t meant for that?”

The Parks Department urges bystanders to call 911 rather than attempting to make ice rescues themselves.

Fire department captain Liam Flaherty of a Bergen Street rescue company said that many good samaritans become victims when they try to help.

“Don’t think because you have that ladder that you can walk right up and pull a person out of a hole,” he said, adding that the FDNY does not use the Parks Department’s emergency ice ladders because responders have their own equipment, including buoyant polypropylene ropes and other safety gear. “We are trained professionals. You want us here.”

Parks employees who respond to emergencies don’t just rely on the ladders set up every 400 feet around the waterway — they bring additional ladders, as well as ropes and life buoys, Lalor said.

But the missing and damaged components mean the city is walking on thin ice, according to Bahlman.

“If they aren’t going to be maintained and give a false sense of security then there is no purpose for them to be there,” he said.

Park watchdog Ed Bahlman says the broken emergency ice ladders that surround Prospect Park’s 60-acre lake will give a false sense of security to park-goers and would-be rescuers.
Community Newspaper Group / Natalie Musumeci

Reach reporter Natalie Musumeci at nmusumeci@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her at twitter.com/souleddout.

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