SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — Simone Pelletier of Belfast got another boat ride from the United States Coast Guard on Friday, but this time she went out with her family for fun.
The last time the 12-year-old was on the Coast Guard’s 47-foot self-righting boat in August, it was anything but enjoyable: She was pulled aboard after an unusually large wave swept her and six other people into the water at Acadia National Park.
Pelletier and her family met Friday with the Coast Guard service men and women who helped rescue her and Peter Axilrod, 55, of New York City, from heavy seas off Acadia. Pelletier, Axilrod and Axilrod’s 7-year-old daughter, Clio Axilrod, were swept into the ocean on Aug. 23 after a large wave kicked up by Hurricane Bill crashed over them and dragged them away from shore. Clio Axilrod was unresponsive when she was pulled from the water and later died.
On hand for the reunion Friday, besides the Pelletiers and local Coast Guard personnel, were Sen. Susan Collins and Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard. Thirteen of the more than three dozen Coast Guard members who have been recognized by their superiors for their roles in the rescue received medals Friday from Allen and Collins.
Pelletier personally thanked those who pulled her from the water and helped treat her the day of the tragedy. She said she suffered from hypothermia after treading water off Thunder Hole for 45 minutes.
Pelletier said that after she was rescued, all she wanted to do was “go to sleep.”
Pelletier was with family friends when the wave rushed up from the ocean and crashed over more than a dozen people who were attracted to the park’s shore by the sunny weather and the heavy, hurricane-generated surf.
Seven people were pulled into the water, and four of them made it back to shore within seconds of the wave’s impact.
The girl said that by the time people saw the wave coming, it was too late to get away.
“We kind of moved back, but I guess we didn’t move far enough,” she said.
As the wave crashed over her, “I was hoping I would be OK,” she added.
Pelletier’s parents, Scott and Carol Pelletier, said their friends who were with their daughter called them after Simone had been washed into the sea. They quickly left their home in Belfast and headed for Acadia, not knowing whether their daughter was still alive.
By the time they arrived on Mount Desert Island, they said, Simone was being cared for at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor.
“It was horrible,” Carol Pelletier said of not knowing her daughter’s fate. “It was great to see her.”
Meeting briefly with Collins and Allen before the ceremony, the girl and her family told them about the ordeal.
“Are you a good swimmer?” the senator asked the girl.
“I guess so,” Simone said.
“I never want to go through anything like that again,” Carol Pelletier told Collins.
Peter Axilrod, who did not attend the event, sent a letter thanking the Coast Guard for its efforts.
Axilrod’s wife, Sandra Kuhach, 51, also was injured when the large wave crashed down on top of her and her family, but she escaped being dragged into the sea.
“I simply was not going to make it much longer when I saw your boat,” Axilrod wrote in his letter, which was read aloud at the ceremony. “That vision was a miracle to me.”
Axilrod wrote that he and Kuhach have been healing since the fatal wave struck. His daughter, he added, also would thank the Coast Guard even though her life was not saved.
“The emotional [injuries] will take longer” to heal, Axilrod wrote.
Being able to save lives is a gift, Allen told those gathered for the brief event.
It’s the kind of gift the Coast Guard gives people around the world every day,” the Coast Guard commandant said. “We do grieve for the Axilrod family. [Clio’s death] is devastating for us as well.”
The Coast Guard’s Stephen Hatch, one of 13 service members who received a medal Friday, was on the boat that rescued Pelletier and Axilrod.
Hatch said the experience of the rescue was difficult, both in the physical demands of scanning the water for survivors while standing on the lurching boat and from the emotional roller coaster of saving two lives but losing a third.
But he smiled as he recounted helping to keep Pelletier alive after she was pulled on board.
“We definitely have to stay on top of our training,” he said.
After the ceremony, the Pelletiers donned bright Coast Guard coats and went out for a ride on the same boat that was used to save Simone’s life. The family smiled and waved as the boat pulled away from the dock and headed toward open water.