A trio of snowmobilers missing since Sunday were lost and trying to find their way with a mother and teenage son they met at an area restaurant, according to a close family friend of the missing men.
The search for 43-year-old Glenn Henderson, of Sabattus; his cousin, 40-year-old Kenneth Henderson, of China; and friend John Spencer, 41, of Litchfield, continued to be delayed Wednesday by extreme cold and wind. Maine Warden Service officials said divers have recovered helmets and gloves, suggesting all three men plunged into Rangeley Lake on Sunday night, and they are presumed dead.
That evidence was found during a separate search for Dawn Newell, 45, of Yarmouth, whose body was recovered Monday morning. Wardens have said Newell was riding on the lake with her 16-year-old son Sunday night when they both drove into open water. The boy managed to jump from his snowmobile onto solid ice before his machine sank, and he called 911 for help.
Wardens initially described the incidents as separate accidents, but Missy Morgan, of Lewiston, who developed a close friendship with Glenn Henderson and Spencer while racing with them at Oxford Plains Speedway, said the three men had met Newell and her son at an unspecified area cafe.
“They thought they knew how to get back, as long as they all stuck together,” Morgan said, citing a conversation Kenneth Henderson had had with his wife that night. “I don’t know what happened after that.”
Later, for reasons unknown, Newell and her son went in one direction and the Hendersons and Spencer went another way as they entered an ice-covered cove on the lake.
Morgan said all three men were experienced snowmobilers who had ridden in the area on at least a few other occasions. Wardens have said there were whiteout conditions on the lake Sunday night.
“You couldn’t see a foot in front of you,” Morgan said. “They probably didn’t even realize where they were on the lake or that they were even on the lake.”
Kenneth Henderson called his wife at 5:45 p.m., saying they were lost, Morgan said. “That was the last phone call we got from them,” she said. The men were reported missing at 2:30 a.m. Monday.
Brian Painchaud, trailmaster for the Sabattus Mountaineers snowmobile club, said Glenn Henderson and Spencer joined the club just a couple of weeks ago. Painchaud had not seen Spencer since graduating from Oak Hill High School with him in 1990. A post on the Mountaineers Facebook page encourages members to pray for the men’s safe return.
Wardens have said the men are presumed dead and have told family members that the search is now a recovery effort instead of missing persons search.
“If they didn’t fall into the water, with how cold it is, they wouldn’t have survived without gear,” Morgan said. “They had nothing but their snowmobile outfits and helmets. They didn’t have tents or sleeping bags.”
Cpl. John MacDonald, spokesman for the Maine Warden Service, on Wednesday declined to confirm any details of Morgan’s account.
The accident was part of what probably was the worst snowmobile tragedy in state history. Nobody can recall any time when four snowmobile riders were killed in the same place at roughly the same time.
“It’s hard to believe everything took place in the same location,” MacDonald said. He called it “kind of mind-boggling.”
Recovery efforts were postponed Tuesday and Wednesday because of high wind and frigid temperatures, which can freeze sonar equipment and endanger divers and boat operators.
Dozens and sometimes hundreds of accidents and several deaths occur on Maine’s 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails each winter. The record high of 16 fatalities occurred in the winter of 2002-03.
Many of the deaths take place on lakes, with snowmobiles plunging through thin ice or into open water. Snowmobilers often ride at 50 mph or faster on frozen lakes. Riders going that fast have little time to react if water suddenly appears.
Locals know that the middle of Rangeley Lake is usually the last place to freeze, said Clark Allen, a trail manager for the Rangeley Lakes Snowmobile Club.
Nobody should have been out on the lake Sunday night, he said, “but they were from out of town, so they probably didn’t know.”
During an interview Wednesday, Morgan spoke stoically about the details of her friends’ last trip, but her emotions peaked as she recalled times spent on and off the Oxford race track.
“They were just the best guys you’ll ever meet,” she said. “They’d give you great advice. They’d make you smile. They were just loved by everybody. This is just sad.”
Glenn Henderson and Spencer were best friends. The Hendersons worked as crane operators, and Spencer was a truck driver who loved to make people laugh.
“He’s this big guy, with arms the size of kegs, but he always wore fluorescent pink,” said Morgan, who already is planning to paint her race car fluorescent pink in his honor.
Glenn Henderson and his wife have two grown children who live in the area, Morgan said. Ken Henderson is married, and Spencer has a 12-year-old daughter and a girlfriend. All of the men have numerous family members in the area who are coming to grips with officials’ conclusion that the men are almost certainly dead.
Wardens said Wednesday that they planned to begin search and recovery efforts in the lake this morning. The temperature at Rangeley Lake was hovering around 0 degrees Wednesday, with steady wind at 25 mph, according to MacDonald.
When weather conditions improve, searchers plan to use sonar equipment to find the men. Morgan said it is important to their families that the remains are returned.
Without them, there are too many unanswered questions.
“Give us something so we have closure,” Morgan said. “Just for these kids, who will be wondering if Dad will be walking through that door. Am I going to get that phone call?”
‘We’re all family’
Morgan, who is setting up a savings account to take collections for Spencer’s daughter, spent part of the weekend with six other Oxford Plains racers plowing the parking lot at the raceway in advance of a vigil scheduled for Wednesday night.
They planned to pray for the men and remember and pass around helmets to collect money that will be split evenly among the men’s families. Morgan was expecting more than 1,000 people.
“In the racing community, it doesn’t matter if you’re blood. We’re all family,” Morgan said.
Morgan has six children of her own. Her motivation to help grows when she thinks about them and what they would go through if Morgan were lost somewhere under the ice.
She said she knows the Hendersons and Spencer would do whatever they could to help.
Morgan said she can’t imagine what the men’s families are going through. “That’s why I’m doing this,” she said. “I can’t get in the water, but I can get everyone together.”
Associated Press writer Clarke Canfield contributed to this report.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642