(HURON COUNTY) — Over 17-years ago, on February 6, 1999, 42-year-old Kerry Southworth of Elkton went ice fishing on Wildfowl Bay off of McKinley Township and broke through the ice, losing his life. Divers began to assemble the following day to plan how to get Kerry from the cold water. According to Sheriff Kelly Hanson, the department was always equipped to respond to emergencies on the open waters, but relied heavily on coordinating with a couple of local Saginaw Bay area residents for their airboats and assistance. It wasn’t a problem if the volunteers were available and nearby when an emergency arose. In years prior to that fateful day, there had been similar tragic and near death ice fishing and snowmobile related incidents on the open water of Saginaw Bay, as well as duck and deer hunting incidents in the shallow marshy areas and on the islands of Saginaw Bay. Shortly after Kerry’s death, his family and friends banded together with Deputy Richard Koehler and others to raise money to purchase an airboat for the department. Through the generosity of those and many other individuals, as well as local service and sportsman clubs and businesses, over $30,000 was collected to purchase and minimally equip an airboat. Almost a year later, the Huron County Sheriff’s Department purchased a 16′ Diamondback Airboat in Florida and brought it back to put into service on January 17, 2000.
Over the next 16 years, that airboat responded to many emergencies on the waters in Huron county, as well as in Tuscola, Bay and other counties, even as far away as Grand Traverse County. The airboat was originally designed for recreational use in the Everglades and not for the extreme service required during very cold weather and dealing with the roughness of the ice. During the last 4-years, each time the airboat was operated on the ice for any time at all, it would usually have to be taken in for repairs. Officials decided to apply for grant funding through Region 3 LETPA. Region 3 LETPA is a Homeland Security grant program for law enforcement members in Alcona, Arenac, Bay, Genesee, Gladwin, Huron, Iosco, Lapeer, Midland, Ogemaw, Oscoda, Saginaw, Sanilac and Tuscola Counties. It was a very intense process and their hard work eventually paid off last winter. The $154,000 project required $35,000 out of pocket to complete. It was agreed the Huron County would commit $25,000 and Tuscola would commit $10,000. It was also determined that the new airboat would be in the control and ownership of the Huron County Sheriff’s Office, along with operational expenses.
In August 2015, the patrol/airboat was ordered from Midwest Rescue Airboats out of Gardner Kansas. The keel of the 20′ patrol/airboat was laid in October and it would take the next three months to construct. It was delivered on February 2. The new patrol/airboat is specifically designed for harsh ice operations.
The official commissioning was held on Thursday, February 18 for the “Sheriffs’ Endeavor.” Over 65 people attended the ceremony, which included family members of victim Kerry Southworth, President of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association Crawford County Sheriff Kirk Wakefield, members of the Huron and Tuscola County Board of Commissioners, Congress Woman Candice Miller’s Office, CBP Air/Marine, USCG members, Region 3 LETPA members, and representatives from various local law enforcement, fire and EMS, as well as members of the Huron and Tuscola County Sheriff’s Offices.