BUCKSPORT, Maine — The town used to keep floating life rings at a dock on the Penobscot River where a boy and his grandfather drowned on Friday, according to the town manager.
Town officials stopped putting life rings at the dock, located just west of the Route 1 bridge between Bucksport and Verona, because people kept stealing them, Derik Goodine said Tuesday.
Goodine said that in light of last week’s tragedy — and because the town now has security cameras installed along the waterfront — the town will put the life rings back. He said he also is taking steps to put up a warning sign, to caution people about the river’s swift current, and to place a large bin of donated life preservers at the dock.
“It’s never happened until Friday,” Goodine said about accidents of any kind at the municipal dock, which he said has been there for about 15 years. The dock, about 10 feet wide and 50 feet long, is popular with kayakers, canoeists and people who fish off it because it doesn’t attract larger boats, which tend to come and go from the town’s marina several hundred yards upriver, to the west.
The accident Friday claimed the lives of 5-year-old Aiden Bulkley of Bangor and his grandfather, Ronald Larue, 54, of Mayfield, Kentucky. They had been fishing off the dock when the boy fell in around 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 8 and his grandfather jumped in to try to save him.
“Even the day after [the accident] and yesterday, there were people down there [on the dock] fishing off of it without life jackets, even younger kids,” said Goodine, who was hired as Bucksport’s town manager earlier this year. “It makes me nervous. I don’t think you want to challenge the Penobscot River to find out if you’re a good enough swimmer or not.”
Goodine said that since Friday’s tragedy, people have contacted the town and offered to donate life preservers. He said he does not think the town council would go so far as to require people to wear life preservers on the dock, but that having a bin of preservers that adults and children could wear while fishing would help prevent future accidents and serve as a reminder to be careful.
The town manager said he thinks floating life ring stations could be kept at the dock and under the Route 1 bridge, which is where the current of the outgoing tide was flowing away from the dock when the boy and his grandfather drowned.
Goodine said he does not believe the town is exposed to any sort of viable liability claim in connection with Friday’s tragedy. He said the town’s liability insurance covers claims of up to $400,000, the same claim limit that is set by state law.
William Plouffe, a Portland attorney with an expertise in municipal law, said Tuesday that municipalities are exempt from liability lawsuits, with several exceptions. Incidents involving municipal vehicles, which in some cases may not be properly operated or maintained, or municipally owned buildings are exempt from the tort claim ban, he said.
Plouffe said he is not sure whether a municipally owned dock or pier would fall in under one of these exemptions. If they do, he said, a claimant would need to demonstrate the town was negligent somehow about the safety or condition of the dock. He said he knows of no requirement under Maine law for signs to be displayed at public waterfront facilities warning people about the dangers of being near the water.
Goodine said he, officials from the Verso paper mill and public safety personnel were involved in a tabletop emergency response exercise on Friday morning when the accident happened. They had been up at Silver Lake as if the dam had failed, and were on their way back down the hill, right across the street from the dock, when the boy fell in.
The town manager said police officers and firefighters involved in the exercise could not have responded any faster than they did.
“I know it’s fresh in all their minds,” Goodine said.
Goodine said he thinks it will take about a week to have the sign made and another few days after that to have it installed at the dock. He said he hopes to have the life rings and donated life preservers in place within a couple of weeks.
“Will it make a difference? I don’t know,” Goodine said of the warnings and precautions, adding that he hopes they do. “We’ll get them up as soon as possible.”