Sub-zero temperatures and freezing waters hampered searchers on Saturday, who spent the day unsuccessfully looking for a Thomaston clammer who went missing near St. George during Thursday’s blizzard.
Marine Patrol and Knox County Sheriff’s deputies returned around 6:30 a.m. Saturday to comb the Long Cove area where 33-year-old Paul Benner was reportedly last seen around 6 or 7 p.m. Thursday after he went clamming, according to Sgt. Rob Beal. They suspended the search late Saturday afternoon.
By 11 a.m. Saturday, a half-inch layer of ice had formed on the cove’s surface as sinking temperatures hit 4 below zero in St. George, Beal said. The freeze hindered Saturday’s search effort by three Marine Patrol officers aboard a 20-foot aluminum boat.
“The cove is literally icing up behind the boat motor,” Beal said at that time, adding that he didn’t anticipate the search to continue more than another hour or so as the temperatures hovered at the freezing mark. With windchill, Beal said the cove felt like 24 below zero.
By late morning, crews had already searched the Long Cove shoreline. By boat, patrolmen dragged sonar devices underwater to look for Benner.
But cold temperatures could render those devices inoperable, Beal said — not to mention, the freezing cove could lock the search crew’s boat in place.
The team will keep searching through the weekend, but the cold has also complicated their long-term strategy.
Patrol officers, bundled Saturday in insulated layers and wearing goggles, are limited by how much time they can safely stay outdoors, Beal said, and Sunday’s temperatures are not expected to climb out of the single-digits.
Typically, searchers use all the techniques at their disposal to hasten their efforts, but on Saturday, Beal’s team decided against breaking up the ice forming on the cove because the fractures could thicken certain areas and hinder Sunday’s search.
“From a temperature situation, I don’t know that this [disappearance] could be happening at a worse time,” Beal said.
Saturday’s search extended one performed overnight Thursday until late afternoon Friday, when multiple law enforcement agencies scoured the Long Cove area for 20 hours, making use of divers, boats and a Coast Guard helicopter.
Benner had reportedly gone harvesting for clams Thursday — the same day a major storm slammed the Maine coast with heavy snow and icy floodwaters.
His skiff was found later that night, and searchers on Friday recovered clam harvesting gear, along with an anchor believed to belong to his skiff, in the middle of Long Cove.
The Coast Guard suspended its search Friday night, shrinking Saturday’s party to Marine Patrol and the sheriff’s department, Beal said.
A handful of flinty local boaters also offered to help Saturday, with one volunteer breaking ice along the cove, according to Beal.
But most volunteers were advised against helping, given the hazardous conditions. One lobsterman’s attempt was thwarted earlier Saturday morning when his boat’s engine failed to start in the cold, Beal said.
Beal said he will return to the cove at daybreak Sunday to assess how the temperature and environmental conditions will affect the day’s search strategy. He said he hopes to involve a plane in Sunday’s search.
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