ROQUE BLUFFS, Maine — The peacefulness of the “quietest place in the world” was broken Thursday by the gentle sobs of family members grieving for a Pennsylvania woman who died after the car she was traveling in went off a boat ramp into the ocean.
Relatives mourning the death of Melissa Moyer, 38, of Sunbury, Pa., gathered on the stone breakwater adjacent to the ramp to create a makeshift memorial under breezy, partly cloudy skies around 1 p.m.
Moyer and a friend from Machias, Amy Stiner, 37, who was pregnant, apparently drowned when the 2001 Dodge Caravan that Stiner was driving went off the the end of Schoppee Point Road directly down the boat ramp on a foggy, rainy Tuesday night. Their bodies were later recovered from the minivan when it was pulled from the water. The two women had been hiking earlier near Roque Bluffs State Park.
Moyer’s father, David Moyer, and his wife, Debby, placed a bouquet of flowers and a small white cross on the breakwater next to the message, “We love you,” that had already been written in chalk by another woman.
David Moyer knelt to tie a pink ribbon around the cross. At times he was overcome with emotion, choking back sobs quietly as his wife put a hand on his shoulder.
At one point, his wife Debby wrote in chalk elsewhere on the breakwater, “We miss both of you.”
“It’s going to be tough,” said Herb Beck, Moyer’s grandfather, speaking with difficulty as he talked to BDN photographer Brian Feulner. Beck and other family members had traveled to Maine from the Sunbury, Pa., area.
“Every time I [saw] her, she called me pop-pop. She’d give me a big hug,” Beck said.
At the end of the breakwater, Moyer’s 13-year-old son, Alex Reichner, assembled another memorial: a plastic sunflower, an American flag pinwheel and more words in chalk. Reichner, who was visiting the area with his mother, was not with the two women at the time of the accident. Family members expressed thankfulness that he had not accompanied them.
Colleen Libby, who lives in a vacation home nearby during the summer, talked to Feulner about the community and the tragedy.
“It was just a nice quiet night,” said Libby. “Very foggy. We had a lot of fog that night.” She heard the sirens blaring from law enforcement and rescue vehicles racing to the scene. “And knew something was not right at all because this is the quietest place in the world, really,” she said.
“Most people know that this is a dead-end road … they drive slowly,” said Libby. “It’s a road you walk on.”
Stiner and Moyer apparently were disoriented in the fog, unaware they were driving in the direction of the boat ramp, rather than back toward Stiner’s home in Machias. The road empties directly onto the ramp. The last section of the road approaching the ramp is narrow, with thick trees on either side, although there are open parking areas on both sides immediately before.
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Wednesday that the vehicle probably entered the water before Stiner realized what was about to occur and could apply the brakes. She made a desperate 911 call from inside the minivan after it was in the water.
Asked if she had any words of comfort to offer the families, Libby said, “It’s a wonderful place to come. It’s so peaceful … To the family, I would just say, I am so, so sorry. … Our hearts go out to you and our prayers. … Sorry this had to happen in such a beautiful place.”
It is not the first time such an accident has occurred at the site, according to Ricky Alexander, a Rhode Island resident who formerly lived in Washington County. Alexander contacted the Bangor Daily News via e-mail from the Gulf of Mexico after he received news of the fatal accident and recalled a similar experience that he and some friends endured in the late summer of 2005.
“It was late and I was driving some buddies out to the pier to hang out for a while,” wrote Alexander. “I didn’t know the road very well, then all of a sudden SPLASH! Window deep in water. All of our cell phones were immediately ruined and we were soaking wet and cold, so we actually walked about two miles back towards town until someone finally picked us up. ”
The tide “swallowed my car,” added Alexander.
“When I returned to the site in the daylight,” he wrote, “there was a sign, about 40-50 (feet) from the ramp that reads ‘Road ends in water.’ However, that sign is hidden by overgrown bushes. The town should really mark that better.”
Lt. Travis Willey of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department said Thursday that this week’s accident remains under investigation. He said he does not know exactly how the Caravan’s electrical system reacted when the vehicle went into the water, but that it had both power locks and power windows.
Power systems can short out in cars that run into deep-enough water, making them inoperable, according to Willey. Some modern vehicles have doors that automatically lock when they are put into gear and that cannot be unlocked as long as the vehicle is in gear, he said, though he does not know if this is the case with the Caravan involved in Tuesday’s accident.
Even in submerged or partially submerged vehicles that have unlocked doors, he said, it can be difficult to push the doors open against the pressure of the surrounding water. As a result, in a submerged car that does not have manual hand cranks for its windows, he added, breaking a window may be the only way to get out.
There are hammer-like tools made specifically for this purpose that can be purchased at auto supply stores, the lieutenant said. People who drive vehicles with power windows near bodies of water should consider how they would get out if they become submerged.
“I would encourage people to take a second look at that,” Willey said. “People should be prepared to [break their car windows].”
Willey said there is a sign at the site that is meant to make motorists aware they are approaching the end of the road. The sign simply says “pavement ends,” however, and is obscured from view by vegetation.
Willey said he did not know how long the ramp has been at the end of Schoppee Point Road or how the end of the road and the abutting shoreline were configured prior to the ramp being built. He directed questions about the ramp to Roque Bluffs town officials.
Carla Wood, town clerk for Roque Bluffs, declined Thursday to comment about Tuesday’s accident and directed questions about the ramp and signage to selectmen. Attempts to contact selectmen on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Similar accidents have occurred in Maine at other boat ramps or places where roads end without barriers at the water’s edge.
In September 2011, a 48-year-old woman from Florida was found dead in a submerged rental car in Frenchman Bay off Lamoine Beach after she apparently drove off the end of Route 184 and into the water. Maine State Police said at the time that she had left a family wedding reception the night before to return to her hotel in Hancock but drove the 2012 Ford Focus in the wrong direction. She was not familiar with the area of the crash where the paved road ends at the ocean’s edge, police said.
The incident was reported to police the next morning after a passerby saw the roof of the rental car protruding from the water.
At the same place in March 2010, two women made it safely to shore after a 1998 Subaru Legacy wagon that they were riding in went into the water. Police later charged the driver of the car with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicants.
In November 2010, an older couple was found dead in a sport-utility vehicle that was submerged off a boat ramp in Seal Cove on Mount Desert Island. The sunken Chevrolet Equinox was discovered in the water the morning of Nov. 23, 2010, by marine contractors who were heading out to move moorings in Blue Hill Bay.
It is not known what caused the couple, who lived nearby, to drive into the water. The ramp in Seal Cove is not located directly at the end of a straight section of road, as is the ramp in Roque Bluffs or the beach in Lamoine. The couple turned off Cape Road and drove onto the pier and then the ramp at the end of the pier, but what kind of visibility conditions there were at the time and whether they knew they were driving toward the ramp is not clear.
In December 2009, the body of a Bangor man was found in a Ford Escort in Pushaw Lake in Orono, about 50 yards from shore near Gould’s Landing. Details about how the vehicle ended up in the water were not publicized.