BELFAST, Maine — Police said Monday they are not sure why a New York City man took a wrong turn Sunday evening and drove off the city’s boat ramp into Belfast Bay, but do know that he’s lucky his story had a good ending.
William Haley, 74, went into the harbor in his Volkswagen Jetta at about 6 p.m., according to Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden. He had come down Main Street hill when he veered left and hit the water.
“The driver was trapped in the vehicle, submerged inside,” McFadden said. “As the vehicle was going completely under, somehow the driver was able to get himself to the back of the car and get the hatchback open.”
Haley, who was alone in his car, was able to get out. Good Samaritan Ron Stevens, 68, whose hometown was not immediately available, had jumped in the water to help Haley. When police responded to the accident scene, officers saw the two men in the water, holding onto the dock.
Both men were taken to the hospital to be checked out, according to WABI, and were released. The Jetta is a total loss, McFadden said.
“It was a lucky day for Mr. Haley,” the chief said. “We’re at a loss as to why the incident happened.”
According to Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum, the city is going to take steps to try and prevent another such incident from taking place. It is the second time in a year that drivers have accidentally driven off the city’s boat launch. Last October, two area men came to the rescue of 92-year-old Eva Lenfest of Searsport, who told police later that she thought she was driving on the road until she hit the water. It was nearly high tide, raining heavily and both the pavement and the water were covered in a layer of autumn leaves. Bystanders told the BDN that it appeared that Lenfest’s car came “hurtling down” the ramp into the water.
After Lenfest’s rescue, Slocum said that the city took steps to make it safer, including procuring moveable barricades that block the boat ramp from the road. The bright, reflective sawhorses seem to be working, he said — no one has hit them or gone in the water since they’ve been in place, and the Maine Department of Transportation has indicated that the city’s boat ramp is well marked. However, while they are clearly labeled to let boat ramp users know they must put them back after they put their boat in the water, many people do not do so. They were not in place on Sunday evening when Haley went into the water.
“If you’re moving these barricades, you need to put them back,” Slocum said. “People aren’t doing that. We’re going to have to get tighter on it. We don’t have somebody down there 24 hours a day, monitoring the boat ramp.”
The city manager said he also has heard that cars are coming down to the bottom of Main Street “way too fast,” and some drivers have had near-misses with people using the new Belfast Harbor Walk. So, the city plans to reduce the speed on Main Street beyond Front Street to five miles per hour, and put up a stop sign at the intersection with the Harbor Walk.
“We’re extremely grateful that [Haley] is healthy and safe. We’re appreciative of the people who went to help him. We don’t want this to happen, and it’s happened twice in less than a year,” Slocum said. “What can we do? We can do everything except drive the car. We really believed there were adequate warning procedures in place, but we’re going to double down and take additional precautions … We have to find a balance between making it safe and making it usable.”