Warnings helped mitigate danger at Thunder Hole

By Sheridan Steele, Special to the BDN
Posted Aug. 31, 2009, at 6:56 p.m.

The staff of Acadia National Park wishes to extend our sympathy to the family of the little girl who was lost in the recent tragedy along Ocean Drive. We also wish to thank those who helped during the high surf event caused by Hurricane Bill.

Like many, I went down to the Thunder Hole area about 11:30 a.m. Aug. 23, as high tide approached to see the surf and take pictures. Hundreds of people were lining the shore and Ocean Drive to witness the power of nature and to see the spectacular waves and splash.

The Park Loop Road was nearly gridlocked. Park staffs from many divisions were out warning people to move back from the water as high tide approached. Sand Beach and the Thunder Hole viewing area were closed and people were asked to move to safer ground.

My wife, Barb, and I were there among the crowds watching the incredible splash when the largest waves hit. Very quickly, we began receiving multiple reports of injuries and even people in the water. There were at least two people with compound fractures of the leg, one with a dislocated shoulder, one with back injuries and several with cuts and bruises that needed medical attention. Ambulances from Bar Harbor and Northeast Harbor were quickly on the way as was the Coast Guard and Maine Marine Patrol.

My wife, a nurse, ran to a woman who was seriously injured and went with her to the hospital. The woman told of losing her daughter and husband to a huge wave as she was slammed into rocks herself. Bar Harbor Whale Watch joined the search and Coast Guard aircraft were dispatched as LifeFlight called to offer assistance.

Traffic had to be cleared to get emergency people on scene. The decision was made to close the Sand Beach entrance station to those hundreds still arriving and they had to be turned back. Many visitors were helping with traffic and clearing one lane for emergency vehicles. Others were using binoculars to frantically search for people in the water and to keep those spotted in view.

At one point, we thought there were as many as five people missing but later determined the number to be three. Rangers directed boat crews to those people we could see in the water as they drifted farther from shore but among ledges and high surf. Boat operators were magnificent in their ability to negotiate strong surf while avoiding the dangerous rocks.

Big cheers went up from the crowds along the shore as the Coast Guard picked up first one and then two survivors near Old Soaker. It was amazing that these two people had survived the cold water and strong surf for more than an hour — they couldn’t have lasted much longer.

Radio communications were difficult because of the number of people needing to communicate urgent information at the same time. MDI Search and Rescue volunteers and off-duty park staff pitched in as park maintenance, wildlands fire crews and interpreters helped with crowd control, moving traffic and keeping people away from danger.

Soon the emergency room in Bar Harbor was crowded with injured and concerned relatives. Ambulance and hospital personnel handled multiple injuries in a professional and well-coordinated fashion. It seemed that everyone was well-trained and ready for this emergency. Teamwork was outstanding and community resources were prepared and eager to help. We are deeply saddened that one life, 7-year-old girl, was lost.

Undoubtedly this situation could have been much worse had we not warned as many people as we did and had it not been for the outstanding response of the community and park staff and volunteers.

Sheridan Steele is the superintendent of Acadia National Park.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/08/31/opinion/warnings-helped-mitigate-danger-at-thunder-hole/ printed on October 31, 2014