ALLAGASH, Maine — When a four-mile-long ice jam formed in the St. John River last week, lifelong Allagash resident Lonna McBreairty took to high ground as the waters rose to flood level.
She spent the night with her friends Lietha and Tylor Kelly a mile or so down the road at the couple’s Two Rivers Lunch restaurant, keeping watch as the town waited for the river to run.
McBreairty, 68, has good reason to vacate her low-lying house each spring when the water starts to come up. Twenty-four years ago McBreairty, her young daughter and scores of other residents and ice-watchers were caught unawares when the river flooded right before their eyes.
Late in the day on April 9, 1991, McBreairty was standing with hundreds of other people on or near the St. John River bridge near the old Dickey Trading Post for the annual spring ritual of watching the ice move.
“God must have been there with us,” McBreairty said. “When the bridge went, it looked just like a book opening up and all the people had just gotten off of it.”
As the waters rose around her home across the road from the bridge, McBreairty and her family dodged downed power lines rushing to move their vehicles and prepare to evacuate with everyone else.
“The water started coming across the yard and we went to move the cars to a higher part of the driveway,” she said. “When I got out of the car, I did not see how deep the water had gotten and I got pulled off my feet and into the water and under ice.”
Her son-in-law was able to grab her and pull her back out, McBreairty said.
Over the next several hours, the family got separated, with Lonna’s husband making it to the Allagash Baptist Church on a knoll about a quarter mile down the road, while McBreairty and their 5-year-old daughter were stranded in their house, which was surrounded on all sides by up to 20-feet of water.
There they waited until around 11 p.m. when Tylor Kelly and Clayton Jackson came knocking at the back door.
“They were in canoe with a motor and Clayton had a 20-foot pole,” McBreairty said. “My daughter and I stepped off the back porch and into the canoe.”
McBreairty said it took about a half-hour to get to the Baptist church as Kelly guided the canoe through churning water, dodging debris and trees.
“Clayton used that pole to push the ice out of our way,” she said. “If it had been daylight and I could have seen what we were going through, I never would have gotten in that canoe.”
At one point a surge of water threatened to tip the craft, McBreairty said, so the two men instructed their passengers to lean the other way for all they were worth.
“I was screeching my head off,” McBreairty said. “It was scary for sure.”
McBreairty and her daughter were not the only ones ferried to safety by Kelly and Jackson.
By his own estimation, Kelly — who declined to be interviewed about the rescue operation — figures he and others spent 12 hours ferrying more than 100 people across the flood waters.
“Tylor and Clayton saved many lives,” McBreairty said. “They risked their own lives.”
Tylor Kelly might not want to talk about that night, but his daughter Darlene Kelly Dumond — who was living in southern Maine at the time — remembers hearing the accounts of it.
“My parents had heard the last time anyone had seen my younger brother he was running across a field away from the ice,” Dumond said. “The road was washed out and there were wardens and other emergency responders [there], but no one dared to go out.”
Dumond said her father rushed home to get his canoe, a large flashlight and joined up with Jackson to canoe to the Baptist church where they found her brother and began ferrying people across the water.
Other residents fired up large front-end loaders that were able to drive over some of the lesser flooded roads and to carry people out in the machines’ buckets.
“That’s the kind of men these people are,” Dumond said. “They knew what had to be done.”
Among those trapped at the Baptist church that night on 1991 was Louis Pelletier III who had been playing ball with Dumond’s brother at the community school when they heard the ice was running.
“We all just took off to go see it,” Pelletier, now 46, said. “I’d been carrying around my VHS recorder all the time just in case so I could film the ice and I grabbed it and started filming.”
As a result, Pelletier has what may be the only footage of the ice taking out the bridge and the subsequent chaos of people trying to get away.
“It was almost like watching a movie,” he said. “With all the special effects like the ice and power lines and everyone running for their vehicles and making a mad dash before the road flooded.”
But Pelletier said the river was faster and he soon found himself stranded at the Baptist church with about 100 other people.
When night fell, Pelletier said someone started a bonfire and everyone was resigned to waiting for rescue.
“They couldn’t send helicopters in because the weather was bad,” he said “It was dark, foggy and we could hear people screaming from across the river.”
Across the river the ice and water had knocked several homes off their foundations, flooded others and stranded dozens of residents.
Pat Kelly, 81, was one of those stranded and ended up spending a wet, cold and miserable night on the roof of her house with her sister-in-law Cora Sullivan.
“I had just gotten home and was having a bowl of cereal,” Kelly said. “I had just taken a bite when my daughter called and said the ice was running.”
Kelly immediately went out to move her car to higher ground in her carport and, like McBreairty, had not anticipated the water coming up so fast.
“I stepped out of my car and the water was suddenly up to my chest,” she said. “My [ex-husband Guy Kelly] grabbed me and pulled me on to the deck.”
While Guy Kelly tried to swim for it, ending up down river and taking shelter in a vacant camp, Pat Kelly said she and Sullivan, who was visiting at the time, opted to stay at the house.
“I knew we had to get above the water, so we decided to climb up on the roof with some pillows, blankets and plastic garbage bags to put over our heads to stay dry,” she said.
The two dragged the kitchen table out to the porch and put a bar stool on top of it to get on the roof, Kelly said.
“It snowed that night and then it rained and sleeted,” she said. “We had a flashlight and a bag of candy [and] people would holler at us from across the river [and] my sister could hear us and was going just about crazy with worry.”
The women refused a ride in Tylor Kelly’s canoe around midnight, opting to wait for a larger boat.
“When that boat came, the roof was all frozen and we had to slide down,” Pat Kelly said. “But at least we had been safe up on that roof.”
Looking back, everyone involved says it was a miracle no one was seriously hurt or killed that night given the crowds of people and how fast the water rose.
“When we went back after the water had come down, where our bonfire had been at the church was completely destroyed by ice and water,” Pelletier said.
No one who lived through the Allagash flood of 1991 will ever underestimate the power of the river that runs through their town.
“I don’t get nervous when the ice starts to come up,” Pelletier said. “But what happened 24 years ago changed my reaction to it [and] I don’t chase the ice around anymore.”