BELMONT, Maine — It began as an exhilarating day at Acadia National Park for four Belfast-area youngsters who wanted to watch the powerful waves stirred up by Hurricane Bill.
Anthony Allen, 17, his 16-year-old girlfriend Kaliegh Walko of Morrill, his younger brother Greg Clark, 14, Greg’s friend Simone Pelletier, 12, of Belfast, and Anthony’s parents had driven Sunday morning to join the estimated 10,000 onlookers at or near Thunder Hole in the park.
“The waves were white, very white, like rapids almost, and as soon as one got done crashing, another would come in,” Anthony said Wednesday at his home in Belmont where he’s recuperating from injuries he suffered that day. He said he had never seen anything like it at Thunder Hole before.
He said that the whole group found a perch on the rocks above the Thunder Hole viewing platform, but after a few minutes the teenagers and Simone wandered further to the south, about a football field’s length away from Thunder Hole, and found a rock to sit on and watch the show. They were 60 feet back from the cliff edge and 20 feet above the ocean, he figured. A safe spot.
“The waves would come and hit the cliff we were on, and the mist would come up,” Anthony said. “It was really nice.”
And then disaster rolled in.
“I saw the wave, and you could definitely tell it was bigger,” Anthony said. “We started backing up. We turned around towards the woods, and it was right there. I got hit.”
The Belfast Area High School senior was knocked off his feet and suddenly was under the churning green ocean along with Kaliegh, Greg and Simone. The force of the water dragged him down and rolled him along the rocks on the ocean bottom. It ripped off his shoes, shorts, hat, necklace and a sock, and pulled his boxer shorts around his ankles.
“I pretty much thought I was going to die,” Anthony said.
Then he surfaced just long enough to grab a breath of air. He went down again and had the bad feeling that he was being sucked out to sea. Then the waves coughed him back onto the cliff face, where he was dazed, badly banged up, and just feet away from Kaliegh. Greg had been pinned by a rock but was able to extricate himself. Paramedics soon arrived to take care of them and others who had been injured by the wave.
But the ordeal wasn’t over yet for Simone, Clio Axilrod, 7, or her father Peter J. Axilrod, 55, of New York City, who had all been swept out to sea.
The Axilrods also had been on the rock watching the waves, Anthony said, though a spokesman for Peter Axilrod’s New York company said Wednesday that the family had been concerned about the danger and had started walking to higher ground.
“Their backs were actually to the wave,” said Stuart Goldstein, head of corporate communications for Depository Trust & Clearing Corp., where Peter Axilrod is managing director for business development. “They were trying to move to safety.”
While Simone and Peter Axilrod were rescued after more than an hour in the 55-degree water, Clio drowned, her body found by the U.S. Coast Guard three hours later about a mile offshore.
The Coast Guard response vessel from Southwest Harbor took a wild, seasick ride as its crew searched for the three people in the ocean. The five crewmen aboard wore helmets and were attached to the boat with heavy-weather belts, said Chief Ed Iverson of Coast Guard Station Southwest Harbor.
Iverson, the coxswain, said that it was “definitely amazing” that Simone and Peter Axilrod were still treading water given the tough conditions. The two were not found together and both were badly bruised and injured from their fall off the rocks. Peter Axilrod also had had heart surgery two months ago, Iverson said.
“It was the will to live, survival instinct and swimming” that saved the two, Iverson said.
When the boat pulled alongside Simone — who was valiantly treading water even though she barely had her head above the waves — crew members were able to reach over and haul her on deck, he said.
“As soon as she got on board she started shutting down, whether it was from shock or hypothermia,” he said.
Though Peter Axilrod was in extreme pain from a fractured arm and dislocated shoulder, he was able to grab a life ring that Coast Guard crews tossed into the ocean.
According to Iverson, Peter Axilrod didn’t know what had happened to his daughter or his wife, Sandra M. Kuhach, who also was injured by the wave.
Clio’s body was found later with the help of the Coast Guard helicopter’s heat-imagery system. Currents had pushed her closer to Otter Cliffs about a half-mile south of Thunder Hole.
“When we picked her up, she had no vitals,” Iverson said. “But crew members conducted CPR on her until she got to the hospital.”
He said that the 12- to 15-foot waves, with every third or fourth set stretching as high as 20 feet, were “extreme” for Maine, and that they got even bigger once they reached closer to shore. The Coast Guard crew at Southwest Harbor has trained for heavy-weather rescues, Iverson said, but encouraged people to stay off the rocks whenever the waves crash in.
“You never know,” he said. “Especially this coming weekend. It looks like we’ll have another tropical storm coming this way.”
On Wednesday, Bonnie Clark, Anthony and Greg’s mother, clutched a coffee cup on the deck of her Belmont home and spoke with somber emotion about the events of Sunday. She said that she is grateful to the ambulance crew, employees of Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor and to all the bystanders who reached out to help the injured.
And though the hour during which Simone’s fate was unknown “just felt like forever,” when the family heard she had been rescued it was like the sun had come out.
“We all just cried from relief that she was there, alive,” Clark said. “We’re just in awe that she held on out there.”
Simone’s father, Scott Pelletier of Belfast, said that she is home now and “feeling as good as can be expected.” She did not suffer a broken leg, as had been previously reported, but is recuperating from her scrapes and bruises.
“You can sum it up as being a miracle,” Pelletier said.
He and Clark both expressed their sorrow for the death of Clio Axilrod and their desire to be respectful of her family at a difficult time.
Though Goldstein said that he had heard Peter Axilrod was still hospitalized at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, a hospital spokesperson said that at the family’s request no information was being released.
Clark said she is dismayed by some things she has read in online blogs about how those who visited Thunder Hole that day were irresponsible.
“It was very hurtful,” she said. “My kids had grown up around the ocean. They understood what waves can do.”
Rangers walked by their group several times, Clark said, and the kids were never asked to move back.
“The rangers were not to blame for anything,” she said quickly.
Anthony said though his underwater ordeal lasted only about a minute, he thinks the effects of his close call will remain with him for a long, long time.
“It seems like life’s too short,” he said. “And after going through that, I want to make something of it.”