Our edge of the mighty Atlantic Ocean is both a beauty and a threat, as hundreds of people learned once more on Sunday at Thunder Hole in Acadia National Park.
No wonder that they thronged there and elsewhere along the coast to see the predicted surge of huge waves in the wake of Hurricane Bill. An estimated 10,000 people lined the coast from Sand Beach to Otter Cliffs.
The park staff prepared for the waves and high tide. Eleven rangers were put on duty, placing signs, warning about riptide and high waves and urging spectators to keep back from the plunging breakers. The road to Schoodic Point, another part of the park where huge waves crashed over rocks, was blocked.
Thunder Hole, a spot where waves loudly crash into rocky ledges, was closed. Twenty or so people were standing on a rocky outcropping near Thunder Hole when an unusually high wave swept most of them down onto the rocks. They were pulled into the swirling water.
A Coast Guard crew arrived within about 20 minutes and plucked from the water a New York man and a 12-year-old girl from Belfast. Others clambered out by themselves, and bystanders pulled out another two.
The man’s 7-year-old daughter, found in the ocean after several hours, was unresponsive and was pronounced dead at a hospital. Eleven others were hospitalized for cuts and bruises and broken bones suffered when they were slammed against the rocks.
Acadia National Park Chief Ranger Stuart West explained the incident as the coming together of an abnormal tidal surge with a beautiful August Sunday that attracted an unusually large crowd to see the surf.
He said that “nature is powerful and unpredictable, but we want to keep the park as open as possible.” He said matters would have been worse if the park had closed the Shore Road, which passes Thunder Hole, in advance of the storm. That would have caused the crowd to spread out to other parts of the park instead of congregating along the shore where the rangers could watch over them.
Mr. West said that both the Shore Road and the Schoodic Point road were later closed so that rangers could check for any unoccupied cars that might mean the owners were still missing. He concluded that all visitors were accounted for.
The sad fatality and the personal injuries are the sort of accidents that occur when people underestimate the furious force of the ocean, which at other times can seem so beautiful and friendly. Like other national parks, the beauty that makes Acadia dramatic can also be dangerous, something visitors can be reminded of through signs and brochures. Keeping them from the danger, whether it be high waves or steep cliffs, is impossible.
Most park visitors know the ocean’s beauty and excitement and often neglect its power and danger.
Sunday, the ocean reminded them of its other side.