January 4, 2013

Sonar spots Rangeley snowmobiles, but iceover, weather put off recovery

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

RANGELEY —  Sonar has picked up two, possibly three, snowmobiles in Rangeley Lake where three snowmobiles are assumed to have gone through the ice Monday, but recovery efforts are off until next week,.

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Maine Warden Service airboats drive out toward the open water on Rangeley Lake Thursday morning in search of three missing snowmobilers who are presumed dead.

Photo courtesy of Maine Warden Service

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A photograph taken Friday from a Maine Warden Service aircradt of the area on Rangeley Lake, where three snowmobilers were lost on Sunday and presumed drowned. The section of lake has frozen over, further delaying search and recovery efforts, according to the warden service.

Photo courtesy Maine Warden Service

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Family and friends have set up an account to raise money for John Spencer's 12-year-old daughter. Donations may be made at any Five County Credit Union branch or by mailing checks to Five County Credit Union, P.O. Box 598, Bath, ME 04530. Checks can be made out to Cassidy Marie Spencer or Five County Credit Union with Cassidy Marie Spencer written in the memo line.

The section where the sleds are believed to have gone in the water is frozen over, according to Maine Warden Service spokesman Cpl. John McDonald, further delaying a recovery effort that was posponed Thursday by wind and cold temperatures.

"The long-range forecast predicts warmer weather and recovery efforts will be evaluated next week," McDonald said in a press release.

The release said sonar scans from Thursday showed two, and possibly three, snowmobiles in the water at that location.

Maine Warden Service boats took to the open water of Rangeley Lake about noon Thursday as weather conditions improved enough to search the snowmobilers, but by late afternoon the search had been suspended because of wind and cold. Thursday night, the Warden Service said the recovery effort would be off until next week, when the weather was supposed to improve.

Search teams in extreme cold weather gear set up a command post near the shore of the lake, and a Maine Army National Guard warming tent was also in place. A warden service chaplain visited with family members waiting privately in the nearby Chamber of Commerce building.

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, was delayed Tuesday and Wednesday by cold and wind.

They were reported missing at 2:30 a.m. Monday.

Area police, fire and rescue personnel were also on standby all day Thursday, their truck motors idling in the cold of the lakeside. By noon, the temperature had warmed to 6 degrees, up from an overnight low of about minus 12.

Game wardens in airboats scouted the open water of the lake Thursday morning checking to see if conditions were safe enough to launch the boats. Preparations to launch search boats began when the weather cleared sufficiently about 11 a.m.

Sonar equipment was used to take pictures of anything that is on the lake bottom, according to Lt. Kevin Adam, state search and rescue coordinator for the warden service. Divers were to go down to retrieve whatever was found.

The lake is 70 to 90 feet deep in that area, Adam said.

Warden service officials said divers have recovered helmets and gloves, suggesting all three men plunged into the 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. He called 911 for help.

“The conditions that night were extreme,” Adam told reporters Thursday morning. “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 attempting to return to where they parked their cars in Carrabassett Valley 60 or 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 snowmobling 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.”

Adam said local residents know about the open water in January on any of Maine’s lakes. He said the best advice is to ask about ice conditions at the local snowmobile club before venturing out onto a lake or pond.

The Warden Service Thursday stressed that snowmobilers and other sight-seers should stay off the ice in the area of the recovery effort, because the effort had made the ice there unstable.

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

Morgan said more than 300 people braved sub-zero temperatures and wind to remember the three men and pray for their families.

An account has been set up to raise money for Spencer’s 12-year-old daughter.

The accident was part of what probably was the worst snowmobile tragedy in state history. No state officials can recall 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,” McDonald said Wednesday. He called it “kind of mind-boggling.”

Dozens and sometimes hundreds of accidents and several deaths occur on Maine’s 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails each winter. Sixteen people were killed during the 2002-03 winter, the highest number of fatalities in a season since record keeping began in 1970.
 

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