RANGELEY – The Maine Warden Service took to the open water of Rangeley Lake on Thursday as weather conditions improved enough for wardens to search for three snowmobilers who have been missing since Sunday, but by late afternoon the search had been suspended until next week.

Teams wearing extreme cold weather gear set up a command post near the shore of the lake, with a Maine Army National Guard warming tent. A warden service chaplain visited with family members who waited privately in the nearby Chamber of Commerce building.

The search for Glenn Henderson, 43, of Sabattus, his cousin Kenneth Henderson, 40, of China and their friend John Spencer, 41, of Litchfield was delayed Tuesday and Wednesday by cold and wind. The men were reported missing at 2:30 a.m. Monday.

Warden service officials say divers have recovered helmets and gloves, suggesting that all three men plunged into the lake Sunday night. All three are presumed dead.

The evidence was found during a separate search for Dawn Newell, 45, of Yarmouth, whose body was recovered Monday morning.

It likely was the worst snowmobile tragedy in Maine history. No state officials can recall four snowmobile riders being killed in the same place at roughly the same time.

Wardens in airboats scouted the open water of Rangeley Lake on Thursday morning, checking to see if conditions were safe enough to launch the boats. The weather cleared sufficiently about 11 a.m.

By noon, the temperature had warmed to 6 degrees, up from an overnight low of about minus 12. The National Weather Service said overnight temperatures on the lake were expected to dip to minus 33, with the wind chill factor.

Cpl. John MacDonald of the warden service said in a news release Thursday evening that sonar was used to scan the bottom of the lake for about two hours before the equipment became inoperable because of the weather.

“Sonar images indicated items of interest which will be investigated further as weather permits,” McDonald said.

With high winds expected for the next several days, the warden service “expects further recovery efforts to be on hold until early next week,” he said.

Wardens have said Newell was riding on the lake with her 16-year-old son Sunday night when they drove into open water. The boy jumped from his snowmobile onto solid ice before his machine sank. He called 911 for help.

“The conditions that night were extreme,” said Lt. Kevin Adam, search and rescue coordinator for the warden service. “High winds; we had a lot of blowing snow. It would have been very poor visibility on trails or on the lake.”

Adam said the three men were trying to return to where they parked their cars in Carrabassett Valley, 60 to 70 miles away, when they apparently got turned around in the blowing snow.

“It’s a very tragic situation. Nobody expects their loved one to go off snowmobiling and then disappear,” Adam said. “We’re trying to get (family members) through this process and trying to bring their loved ones back to them.”

Family members and friends of the men gathered Wednesday evening at Oxford Plains Speedway, where all three were popular figures among fellow racers and fans. Their friend Missy Morgan said the several hundred dollars that were donated during the vigil will be divided evenly among the three families.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

dharlow@centralmaine.com