Jerry Nelson: Trapped underwater for eight minutes, Iowa ice angler shares his story

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

Terror flooding his brain, James struggled to open the door of the ATV as icy water gushed into the cab.

Within a matter of seconds, the cab was completely filled with water.

It was Jan. 28, 2022. James Van Veldhuizen and a friend had gone ice fishing on Lake Okoboji in Iowa. As they headed back toward shore, the side-by-side all-terrain vehicle they were riding in hit an area of thin ice and plunged headlong into the lake, submerging all but the rear end of the vehicle.

 “My friend opened his door and got out right away,” James said. “But I couldn’t open my door. I had to bend the door frame and squeeze out.” 

But James’ watery nightmare had just begun.

“I was disoriented when I got out of the cab,” he said. “I swam toward what I thought was up but went horizontal instead. When I finally got my bearings, I discovered that I was lost under the ice.”

Jerry Nelson

 A foursome of men from Waterloo, Iowa, had been ice fishing nearby. They knew that the ice was thin where James and his friend were headed and tried to wave them off. James and his friend didn’t see the men’s frantic gestures.

The four men, who were trained in water rescue, rushed to the spot where the ATV had broken through the ice. James’ friend was quickly pulled out. There was no sign of James.

 “As I struggled to find my way out from under the ice, I thought about my wife and our daughters,” James said.

James and his wife, Sheri, have been married for 30 years They have two daughters and two small granddaughters. James has been a farm equipment salesman at Town and County Implement in Rock Valley, Iowa, for 32 years.

Floundering beneath the ice and straining to hold his breath, James realized that he had precious little time to find his way out before he would lose consciousness.

“I saw a dark area and decided to swim toward it,” he said. “I can barely tread water, but I swam that day.”

James made the right decision; he had found his way back to the partially submerged ATV. One of the rescuers threw a strap and James grabbed it. Despite being chilled to the bone, James managed to hang onto the strap as the men pulled him to safety.

Van Veldhuizen

When he was at last hauled out onto the ice, James had been in the freezing water for eight minutes.

James was rushed to a local hospital. His core body temperature had plummeted to 90 degrees.

“They wrapped me in an electric blanket and warmed me up one degree at a time,” James said. “The doctor asked if I had blacked out at any point, and I said no. He asked me to recount the day’s events. I did, and it matched up with what everyone else was saying. The doctor told me that many people lose consciousness at 93 or 92 degrees. If that had happened, he said, we would have been facing a much different situation.”

James soon returned home and made a full physical recovery. He continues to grapple with the psychological repercussions of his ordeal.

 “I’m seeing a trauma counselor once a week and that has helped tremendously,” James said. “I had nightmares for the first three weeks, but my counselor told me how to deal with them. I’m still a restless sleeper, but I haven’t had a nightmare for several weeks.”

Has he gone ice fishing since the incident?

“My counselor and my wife both said that I should go back out onto the ice,” James said. “My wife told me, ‘You’re not going to run away from your time.’ I’ve gone ice fishing again, but I’ve been wearing a really good ice fishing float suit.”

In retrospect, James realizes that he survived only because numerous pieces fell precisely into place.

“My time on Earth was done,” James said. “But thanks to God’s grace, those four guys were there. They saw us go in, knew what to do and had the right equipment.”

James chokes up when he talks about what might have been.

“The incident rocked my entire family to the core. But I’m working through it with prayer and the help of family and friends. The whole community has been very supportive. Every day, someone will pop into my office and ask how I’m doing. I’m doing OK.”

James is giving back to the community by sharing his story with high school students.

“I wonder what God’s plan is for me,” he said. “Maybe it’s sharing my story in the hopes that I can somehow make a difference.”

Nelson's book, "Dear County Agent Guy," is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.