clock menu more-arrow no yes
Lt. John Cooper stands on the Chicago Fire Department’s vessel, “Christopher Wheatley,” which breaks ice that forms on the Chicago River, Thursday afternoon.
Lt. John Cooper stands on the Chicago Fire Department vessel, the Christopher Wheatley, used to break ice that forms on the Chicago River.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Filed under:

All aboard Chicago Fire Department’s ice-breaking vessel

An 11-year-old boat made of reinforced steel and concrete, the Christopher Wheatley crushes the icy river with deceptive ease.

A boat traveling along an icy Chicago River in February is a rare sight.

But when the temperature drops and the river freezes, the Christopher Wheatley crushes the ice with deceptive ease.

Operated by the Chicago Fire Department, the Wheatley is designed to break ice that has formed on the Chicago River. If, for example, a person falls in the water, rescue personnel would need an unencumbered path through the ice, explained Jason Lach, CFD Marine and Dive Operations deputy district chief.

Once the boat cuts through the middle of the river, surrounding ice slowly breaks off — and on one recent trip, some gathered geese honked loudly as they were forced to move.

The Chicago Sun-Times joined CFD personnel aboard the Wheatley Thursday as it created a path between the Chicago Marine Safety Station and Wolf Point.

Lately, the colder-than-usual weather has kept the Wheatley out on the Chicago River every other day, Lach said.

The 11-year-old boat is a beast of a vessel, built of reinforced steel and concrete. When it hits the ice, it sounds like metal shards spinning in a blender. It has advanced life support systems — and deck guns that can pump out 15,000 gallons of water per minute. The boat is staffed 24/7 by at least five crew members, such as paramedics, EMTs, boat pilots, engineers and firefighters, he said.

And in a pinch, it’s a portable hydrant.

“When we get down to some of the shipyards or other places, we can have engines from landside bring a hose over to them and they’ll have an endless supply of water,” Lach said.

Although designed to break ice, the Wheatley is used year-round as a mobile command center for water rescues on the river and Lake Michigan. This winter, the James J. Versluis, operated by the Chicago Department of Water Management, is the boat in charge of breaking ice on the lake.

The Chicago Fire Department’s engine, “Christopher Wheatley,” breaks ice Thursday afternoon on the Chicago River in the Loop.
The Chicago Fire Department’s Christopher Wheatley breaks ice Thursday afternoon on the Chicago River in the Loop.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
The Chicago Fire Department’s “Christopher Wheatley” is docked Thursday near the Chicago Marine Safety Station at 250 N. Breakwater Access before it breaks ice on the Chicago River.
The Chicago Fire Department’s icebreaker Christopher Wheatley was docked Thursday near the Chicago Marine Safety Station.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Pilot Gordon Steiner, left, peers out the window as Jason Lach, the Chicago Fire Department’s deputy district chief in charge of marine and dive operations, right, stands on CFD’s engine, “Christopher Wheatley,” before it starts breaking ice that formed on the Chicago River Thursday afternoon
Pilot Gordon Steiner (left) peers out the window as Jason Lach (right), the Chicago Fire Department’s deputy district chief in charge of marine and dive operations, stands on CFD’s icebreaker before heading out onto the Chicago River.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Ice that formed on the Chicago River breaks as the Chicago Fire Department boat Christopher Wheatley cuts through the ice Thursday afternoon.
Ice that formed on the Chicago River breaks as the Chicago Fire Department’s “Christopher Wheatley” cuts through the ice Thursday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Chicago Fire Department Firefighter/EMT Richard Musil, left, and Lt. John Cooper, right, watch ice that formed on the Chicago River break as the “Christopher Wheatley,” cuts through the ice on the river Thursday afternoon.
Chicago Fire Department Firefighter/EMT Richard Musil, left, and Lt. John Cooper, right, watch ice that formed on the Chicago River break as the Christopher Wheatley cuts a path on the river Thursday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
The Chicago Fire Department’s engine, “Christopher Wheatley,” breaks ice Thursday afternoon on the Chicago River in the Loop.
The frozen Chicago River before the fire department’s icebreaker opens up the waterway.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Jason Lach, Chicago Fire Department’s deputy district chief in charge of marine and dive operations, wears a jacket that doubles as a flotation device while standing on the “Christopher Wheatley” Thursday afternoon as the vessel breaks ice that formed on the Chicago River.
Jason Lach, Chicago Fire Department’s deputy district chief in charge of marine and dive operations, wears a jacket that doubles as a flotation device while standing on the Christopher Wheatley Thursday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Lt. John Cooper boards the Chicago Fire Department’s “Christopher Wheatley,” which breaks the ice that forms on the Chicago River, Thursday afternoon.
Lt. John Cooper boards the Chicago Fire Department’s Christopher Wheatley, which breaks ice that forms on the Chicago River.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Navy Pier is seen Thursday afternoon from inside Chicago Fire Department’s “Christopher Wheatley,” which breaks ice that forms on the Chicago River.
Navy Pier is seen Thursday afternoon from inside Chicago Fire Department’s icebreaker Christopher Wheatley.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
The Chicago Fire Department’s engine, “Christopher Wheatley,” breaks ice Thursday afternoon on the Chicago River in the Loop.
The Chicago Fire Department’s icebreaker, the Christopher Wheatley, cuts path through the frozen Chicago River Thursday afternoon.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
Pilot Gordon Steiner, right, peers out the window as Chicago Fire Department Firefighter/EMT Richard Musil prepares to undock the “Christopher Wheatley,” Thursday afternoon.
Pilot Gordon Steiner, right, peers out the window as Chicago Fire Department Firefighter/EMT Richard Musil unmoors the Christopher Wheatley.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

R. Kelly

R. Kelly could spend second summer on trial if federal case in Chicago goes forward

Entertainment and Culture

Netflix CEO admits he ‘screwed up’ response to Chappelle backlash, but stands by comedy special

Nation/World

Queen Elizabeth accepts medical advice to rest, cancels Northern Ireland trip

View all stories in News