Park ranger gives credit to rescuers in Acadia

Posted Aug. 25, 2009, at 9:26 p.m.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Rescue crews from federal, state and local agencies worked well together in response to the large wave that broke over a group of sightseers on Sunday knocking seven of them into the turbulent waters off Ocean Drive near Thunder Hole, according to the park ranger in charge of the rescue ef-fort.

Sixteen people were injured seriously enough by that wave and others to require treatment at a hospital. Seven of 13 people struck by one unusually large wave were knocked into the water. Four were immediately able to get out on their own or with assistance from bystanders. But three were swept away from the shore and one of them, a 7-year old girl from New York City, died. The injured suffered broken bones and lacerations as they were battered against the rocks.

“The whole island responded,” said Park Ranger Richard Rechholtz, who was the incident commander for the rescue effort which involved crews on land and on the water. “And they did a spectacular job. Everyone should be very proud of what they did. We saved two lives. Unfortunately, we didn’t save one.”

Rechholtz said rangers may even have saved more lives through efforts before the unusually large wave struck.

Rangers already were in the area of Ocean Drive to deal with the masses of people who had gathered to see the high seas generated by Hurricane Bill. Park officials estimated as many as 10,000 people visited Sunday to view the waves.

By about 9 a.m., rangers had decided to keep swimmers out of the water at Sand Beach and then decided to close the beach entirely and to close the viewing area at Thunder Hole. Park crews erected barricades at those sites warning visitors of the danger from the high seas.

Rangers also patrolled areas along the shore urging sightseers to stay away from the water, but, Rechholtz said, there were just too many people.

“There were just not enough of us to deal with them,” he said. “Every time we would move someone back, someone else would come in their place.”

Rechholtz said he assisted a visitor injured by another large wave near Thunder Hole not long before the deadly wave hit. He was on his way back from the hospital at 11:58 a.m. when the call came that the bigger wave had struck.

The park immediately contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and called in two ambulances. When Rechholtz realized the extent of the injuries, he said, the rangers called in more help.

“We knew we had massive casualties, so we called in more ambulances and brought in all the rangers who were off duty,” Rechholtz said. “We set out to determine how many were hurt and where they were located, and how many were in the ocean, and where they were.”

Ranger David Smith coordinated the efforts on shore, while Ranger Chris Wiebusch coordinated the rescue in the water in direct contact with the Coast Guard and the Maine Marine Patrol, both of which had boats in the water for the search. A dozen members of the MDI Search and Rescue group patrolled the shoreline.

Although the different agencies don’t always train together, they follow the same incident command system.

“Everyone fits into a certain role,” he said. “When everyone does his job, it’s a very efficient system that works well.”

In addition to the state and federal agencies, the island’s municipal rescue crews and even off-duty emergency personnel and retired rangers showed up at the scene to help. The public also helped.

“Human nature kicked in,” Rechholtz said. “Everyone did what they could to help the people who were hurt.”

Park visitors on shore also worked with rangers, using binoculars and spotting scopes to keep track of two of the three people in the water. That information was relayed to the Coast Guard and Marine Patrol crews who searched a 15-square-mile sector using Coast Guard aircraft as well as the boats. Even a local whale watch boat stayed on the scene to offer assistance, Rechholtz said.

The Coast Guard was able to locate two people — Peter Axilrod, 55, of New York City and Simone Pelletier, 12, of Belfast — in about 70 minutes and rescue them from the 55-degree waters. It took an extensive search of the area and several hours to find Axilrod’s daughter, Clio, 7.

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