June 20, 2018
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Witnesses recount MDI wave tragedy

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — A Belfast girl and the parents of a 7-year-old girl who died Sunday when an unusually large wave swept several people into the ocean near Thunder Hole remained hospitalized Monday, according to officials.

According to Maine Marine Patrol, Simone Pelletier, the 12-year-old Belfast girl who suffered a broken leg when she was knocked down and swept into the ocean just before noon Sunday, was taken to Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor immediately after the incident.

“She is at our hospital and she is in good condition,” MDI Hospital spokeswoman Martha Nordstrom said Monday evening.

The parents of the dead girl, Clio Dahyun Axilrod, remain hospitalized at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, the state Marine Patrol indicated in a prepared statement released Monday. The girl’s parents are New York City residents Sandra M. Kuhach, 51, and Peter J. Axilrod, 55. Axilrod is the managing director for business development for Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. in New York.

Maine Marine Patrol assisted the Coast Guard and officials with the park Sunday afternoon after a large wave struck at least 13 people who had gathered on a ledge about 100 yards south of Thunder Hole to watch the storm surge from Hurricane Bill crash against the rocky shore. Thunder Hole is a popular tourist attraction in the park where waves can create large splashes against the shore, even under normal weather conditions.

Acadia rangers estimate that thousands of people had gathered late Sunday morning along the shore near Thunder Hole and at Schoodic Point to watch the large waves.

Park officials said Monday that of the people who got soaked by the unusually large wave near Thunder Hole, seven were swept into the water but four were immediately able to get safely back onto the rocks, some under their own power and others with the help of bystanders.

After the fatal wave struck, Simone Pelletier, Peter Axilrod and Clio Axilrod were pulled farther away from the shore by the ensuing wave action and were unable to swim back to land. Simone and Peter Axilrod were rescued from the frothy water by the Coast Guard about 70 minutes after the huge wave swept them in, according to park officials. Axilrod was immediately taken by LifeFlight helicopter to EMMC.

Clio Axilrod was unresponsive when her body was recovered nearby by the Coast Guard several hours later, they said.

Kuhach is believed to have been hit and injured by the wave, but escaped being dragged out into the ocean.

According to Acadia officials Monday, 16 people in all who were injured near Thunder Hole on Sunday were taken to MDI Hospital in Bar Harbor for treatment, some by ambulance, others by rangers and still others by private vehicles. Of those 16, two later were transferred to EMMC. Kuhach was one of those two and the other was Nancy N. Smith of Richland, Miss., Acadia’s Chief Ranger Stuart West indicated Monday in a press release.

Without confirming the identities of anyone at the hospital, a spokeswoman with EMMC said Monday afternoon that three injured adults had been brought to the medical facility Sunday from the park. She said that at the request of the patients’ families, the hospital would not release any further information.

Treated at MDI Hospital for various injuries such as fractured bones and lacerations inflicted by the large wave were:

Margret Phillips, 55 of Richland, Miss.

Kailey Walko, 16, of Belfast.

Greg Clark, 14, of Belfast.

Anthony Allen, 17, of Belmont.

John Brinker, 59, and Mary Brinker, 67, both of Baltimore, Md.

Ellen W. Yenawine, 62, and Gardner D. Yenawine, 70, both of New London, N.H.

Park officials also said that, according to hospital officials, a 54-year-old woman was treated at the hospital later that afternoon for noncritical injuries. The woman’s name and hometown were not listed in the park press release.

Park officials also said that Luke Picking, 16, and Mark Picking, 51, both of Indianwells, Calif., were struck by a different wave near Thunder Hole at about 11:30 a.m. West indicated in the release that Luke Picking, Mark Picking’s son, was treated but not admitted to MDI Hospital and that Mark Picking was treated for a severely dislocated right shoulder and broken collarbone.

Mary Ellen Martel, a resident of Southwest Harbor, said Monday that she and her husband, Jack Martel, got soaked by the wave that dragged the Axilrods and Pelletier into the ocean. She was taking pictures of the waves but did not see the large wave strike the people near her, she said, because she quickly turned her back to the sudden oncoming deluge in an effort to shield herself from the water.

“I saw this wave shoot up and I turned and hunkered down over the camera,” Martel said. “It was totally unlike any of the other [waves] that came before it. It was far larger than anything else.”

Martel said she and her husband walked away from the water after the wave hit and saw objects floating in the water. She said she wanted to believe it was lobster buoys bobbing in the surf, but soon realized they were people.

“Everybody was scrambling to get off the ledges,” Martel said. “We knew people had been hurt. I didn’t think anyone could survive being in [the ocean].”

Martel said that before the wave struck, park rangers had been telling people not to get too close to the water but that many of the sightseers simply ignored the rangers’ advice.

West, Acadia’s chief ranger, said Monday that the park put extra rangers and other staff on duty Sunday because they knew that people would be attracted to the oceanfront to watch the waves generated by Hurricane Bill. He said that 10 rangers were on duty in the park Sunday, but that along both Ocean Drive near Thunder Hole and the road that leads to Schoodic Point on the eastern side of Frenchman Bay, there were an estimated 10,000 sightseers.

“That’s a lot of people,” West said.

The chief ranger defended the park’s decision before the incident not to close Ocean Drive and Schoodic Loop Road. He said that, to help keep people away from the water’s edge, the park closed Sand Beach and the viewing platform at Thunder Hole and posted warning signs before the large wave struck.

Park officials could not have known that there would be such a large wave compared with the others hitting the shore at the time, which were between 12 and 15 feet high. West said he didn’t know how big the large wave was.

“It was unpredictable,” he said.

Normally, when hurricanes increase the size of waves in the Gulf of Maine, the weather is wet and rainy and it is later in the year, when temperatures tend to be colder, West said. The wave generated by Hurricane Bill on Sunday happened to strike on a beautiful day when the sun was out and during the park’s busiest time of year.

If the park had closed the shoreline near Thunder Hole, people likely would have gone elsewhere in the park or on MDI to see the waves, and rangers would not have known where people were, according to West.

“It’s like a balloon,” he said of the flow of people Sunday to the ocean. “Squeeze that balloon and they’ll go somewhere else. They were going to the shore no matter what.”

West said that despite warnings from rangers and other obvious signs of potential danger, people seemed determined to be near the water. At some places in the park, the high waves were pushing water underneath cars parked along low spots of roadways, he said, but people still stood there taking pictures of the waves instead of moving their cars to higher ground.

“It seemed like people didn’t understand the power of the ocean,” West said.

Bar Harbor resident Tara McKernan said Monday she went with her family to see the waves after visiting a Bar Harbor farmers market and had a bad feeling when they got close to Thunder Hole. The number of people spread out along the rocks was “tremendous” and the waves were “enormous,” she said. The combination, she feared, would be a bad one.

“‘This is when people get hurt,’ I thought,” McKernan said. “It was so packed.”

McKernan said park rangers walked along the rocks and tried to warn people about getting too close, but that many people simply returned to where they had been standing once the rangers had continued off down the shore.

“Everybody just kept going back down” she said. “They didn’t really get it.”

McKernan said she did not see the wave hit, but minutes after it happened she saw people dripping wet and some bleeding up by Ocean Drive, which contributed to a “dazed and frantic” atmosphere among the crowd. She also saw people in the water.

“I didn’t think anything good was going to come of it,” she said. “It made me sick to my stomach.”

But when the Coast Guard rescued Pelletier and Axilrod from the water, people who had been watching their ocean ordeal from the rocks clapped and cheered, she said.

Stuart Goldstein, head of corporate communications for Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., said the firm has been in touch with the family of Peter Axilrod.

Goldstein declined to cite details of the conversation, but said that Sunday’s tragedy is a “horrific experience” for the Axilrods.

“He is a highly valued and well-respected senior executive at the firm,” Goldstein said. “Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his family.”

Sunday’s incident is one of at least five in the past 16 years in which visitors to Acadia have gone into the ocean and died.

Last year, Faith Wise of Trufant, Mich., died when she slipped at Schoodic Point and slid into the ocean and drowned. In 2004, Hampden resident Emil Lin drowned when he dove into the surf at Otter Cliffs to retrieve a climbing shoe that went in the water.

Similar to Sunday’s accident, a couple from Charleston died in 1999 when a large wave crashed over them at Schoodic Point and they were washed into the sea. In 1993, College of the Atlantic student Douglas Rose died when he was climbing with a friend near Great Head on MDI and became trapped in a cave by the rising tide.

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