Despite precautions that ranged from staging search-and-rescue equipment and personnel along the storm-beaten coastline to erecting barriers to keep visitors away from the angry Atlantic Ocean, Acadia National Park officials were trumped by nature when a monstrous wave swept a 7-year-old New York City girl to her death and injured her parents.
Upwards of 16 park visitors, maybe a few more, sustained a variety of injuries ranging from compound fractures and other broken bones by being knocked down like bowling pins onto the slippery granite blocks that make up Acadia's coastline.
"The way you could make this park the safest would be to allow no one to use it," Acadia Superintendent Sheridan Steele said Monday while reflecting on the tragedy. "And there would never be an injury or a fatality. But obviously, you want people to use their national parks, and people want to see nature at its rawest, if you will. And so, we try to do it in a way that minimizes risk to people, just as we try to allow use in ways that minimize negative impacts to the resources. So it’s a balancing act."
Saturday dawned calm at the 36,000-acre national park set on Mount Desert Island just off the coast of Maine. But by Sunday morning the swirling spokes of Hurricane Bill had whipped the Atlantic into a tempest. Along the national park's shores the seas were running 12-15 feet above normal, according to park authorities.
Acadia officials prepared for the throngs they expected would head to the rocky coast to watch the rollers crash into the granite blocks that try to buttress the island from the seas. A search-and-rescue truck and personnel were stationed not far from the popular Thunder Hole, a crack in the granitic underpinning over which a viewing platform normally holds 50 or 60 visitors; life rings were placed at strategic points along a 2-3-mile stretch of Ocean Drive that swings closest to the Atlantic near Thunder Hole; Sand Beach, a popular day area where swimmers can venture into the chilly Atlantic, was closed; the viewing platform at Thunder Hole itself was closed, and; barricades were placed in strategic areas along with signs warning visitors of the dangers the turbulent ocean presented.
Upwards of 50 park personnel also were sent out to Ocean Drive -- maintenance workers, interpreters, and other park employees -- all with safety foremost in their minds. Thirty of those were directed specifically to alert visitors -- the crowd was estimated by Chief Ranger Stuart West at 10,000 -- to the dangers, the superintendent said.
Seven-year-old Clio Axlerod and her parents, 55-year-old Peter Axlerod and 51 Sandra Kuhatch-Alxerod, were among a group of a dozen or so visitors that had gathered about 150-200 yards further down the coastline beyond Thunder Hole on a rocky point roughly 20 feet above the ocean, according to Superintendent Steele. Ironically, they realized their safety was at risk just moments before the towering wave crashed into their vantage point just before noon Sunday.
"They were hit from behind. The woman who was injured and taken to the hospital, the mother, said they had seen some splash that made them think they had better head back, get up further away from the water," he said. "So they all got up and started walking away and they got hit from behind, so they never saw it coming."
That wave knocked seven visitors into the 55-degree ocean, according to park rangers. Four made it back to shore on their own. Those who didn't included the father and daughter from New York City and 12-year-old Simone Pelletier, of Belfast, Maine. A Coast Guard cutter responded from nearby Southwest Harbor and was able to pluck Mr. Axlerod and Ms. Pelletier from the rolling seas roughly an hour after they went into the ocean, but not until 3:32 p.m. were rescuers able to find Clio Axlerod, who never regained consciousness.
While many view national parks as places of beauty to enjoy nature, they also can be dangerous places to those unfamiliar, unprepared, or caught with their guard down, even for a moment. Many accept the dangers.
“Have you ever climbed Precipice, or Beehive?" asked Superintendent Steele, referring to two Acadia trails that at points require hikers to pull themselves up hand-over-hand on metal rungs hammered into the granite walls. "I'm sure there are people who are sure we should close the Precipice Trail because it’s dangerous. But, literally thousands of people go up that every year and have one of the best experiences of their life. And they realize that there’s some danger involved in it. If they fall off one of those ladders they’re liable to be seriously injured.”
This past weekend's incident was not the first time visitors had been swept into the ocean at Thunder Hole. According to Death, Daring, & Disaster, Search and Rescue in the National Parks, on August 2, 1934, three young women from Bar Harbor were standing on the rocky coastline near Thunder Hole watching waves when one, Emily McDougall, was swept into the ocean. Despite valiant efforts by her friends, Christine Stewart and Ellen Geaney, Ms. McDougall died. For their attempts at saving their friend, Ms. Stewart and Ms. Geaney received Carnegie Hero Awards.