A tributary leads to Dyer Bay in Steuben, seen from Dyer’s Bay Road on Thursday. The death of Cole Merchant, 17, was another blow for a tightknit Down East community that had just lost Tylar Michaud in July when the 18-year-old didn’t return from hauling lobster traps. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SULLIVAN — Cole Merchant spent his last afternoon behind the concession counter at Sumner Memorial High School, serving up hot dogs and nachos with a big smile.

The 17-year-old senior joked around with classmates and chatted with fans who piled into the gym for a basketball game. At some point, he slipped outside to scribble a message in the frost on his brother’s car. After the game, he said goodbye to his parents and headed to Steuben to spend the night at a friend’s house.

Cole Merchant, 17, was killed in a car crash last week in Steuben. Courtesy of Holly Merchant

He was a passenger in his friend’s car the next afternoon when it went airborne over a hill on Unionville Road in Steuben and slammed into a tree. Cole died at the scene.

His death has sent a new ripple of grief through a Down East community that just a few months ago mourned an 18-year-old lobsterman lost at sea. Three other young people from the area died in a car crash in 2021.

The deaths have taken a toll along the coast of the quiet Schoodic Peninsula. In these small towns, with sweeping views of the rocky coast and across Frenchman Bay to the mountains of Acadia National Park, just about everyone knows everyone.

“Unfortunately, these communities have had a lot of loss recently. It’s felt across the entire county,” said Bill Tracy, director of the Hancock County Technical Center, where Cole spent half of his school day studying automotive technology. “You can see the pain, but then they rally like nobody’s business.”


In the days after the Dec. 10 crash, people from Sullivan, Steuben, Gouldsboro, Corea, and beyond have donated more than $18,000 to an online fundraiser for the Merchant family. On Facebook, many have changed their profile photos to one of Cole dressed for prom in a pink suit with a matching bowler hat and bow tie. They’ll gather at a vigil Sunday night at the gazebo in Sullivan.

“That really speaks to the value our Down East community places on taking care of our own, and this family is one of our own,” said Dawn McPhail, principal of a Lamoine K-8 school, where Cole’s father has been a bus driver for more than 20 years.

Holly Merchant hugs a Sumner girls’ basketball player before a game on Wednesday evening. The players gave her roses in remembrance of her son, Cole, a senior at the high school, who was killed in a car crash in Steuben last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


This kind of support surprises no one in these towns, where many families have spent generations earning a living on the water.

“A lot of people are born and raised and stay here,” said Katti Meeks, of Steuben. “We take care of our own. Everyone treats everyone like family.”

Back in July, the tightknit community showed up when Tylar Michaud, of Steuben, didn’t return one day from hauling his lobster traps. Tylar, who had just graduated from Sumner, learned how to catch fish alongside his stepfather, a fourth-generation lobsterman.


As word spread that he was missing, fishermen headed out into the dense fog to search. They found his boat empty, cutting slow circles through the water. For weeks, anyone with a boat was out in it looking for Tylar. People walked the shore, searching inlets and beaches. They donated money for aerial searches, food, their time, and anything they could to help his family.

Tylar Michaud standing on a dock in Steuben in 2023. Courtesy of Ronald Michaud

Tylar’s body was found in August, just a day after hundreds in the community had gathered at the high school to celebrate his life.

“These are the kinds of things you don’t even have to ask for,” said Lucille Null, of Gouldsboro, who works in the Sumner guidance office. “We’re just really fortunate to live where we live.”

Cole and Tylar weren’t close friends – they were a year apart in school – but Cole’s parents, Dean and Holly Merchant say he was deeply moved by Tylar’s death.

He went to the community vigil held in Tylar’s honor but couldn’t bring himself to go to the funeral because he didn’t want to cry in front of everyone.

Cole’s Facebook profile picture is still set to a photo of Tylar at his high school graduation.



Cole spent his whole life in Sullivan, a town of 1,200 residents that straddles Route 1. The second of three children, he was the one who always wanted to make everyone happy.

He was kind and gentle, the type of person who would literally give someone the shirt off his back, said Jackson Green, his high school principal. Cole was always a helper. In elementary school, he filled backpacks with food for students whose families needed a little extra help. When he noticed his neighbor, who is waiting for a heart transplant, wasn’t doing well, Cole jumped in to help around his house.

“He was what we strive to be,” Holly Merchant said.

He loved many things: sushi, the bicycle he hooked up to a motor, teasing his siblings, and ’80s hair bands. He liked to get a rise out of his parents, but he still hugged and kissed them every night before bed. He taught himself how to drum using boxes from the basement. He learned how to cook by experimenting in the kitchen.

When something caught his interest, he was all in. Sometimes he’d lose track of time or talk his parents’ ears off about whatever he’d been learning.


“When he gets his mind set on something he wants to accomplish, he’ll do anything he can to accomplish it,” his mother said last week while sitting with her husband in a meeting room at the high school.

Holly Merchant, joined by her husband, Dean, shows a photograph of their son, Cole, 17, who was killed in a car crash in Steuben last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

They told stories through tears, and she swiped through her phone to pull up photos of Cole.

Early in high school, Cole struggled with scoliosis, which left his back hunched and curved. Some classmates teased him, his parents said, but he became more confident after undergoing spinal surgery when he was 16. The recovery was long and hard, but he was determined to get to the point where he could ride his bike, learn to drive, and play basketball. He hoped he’d grow taller than his dad.

“He felt good about himself,” his father, Dean Merchant, added. “He would walk tall and proud.”

“He felt like his life started at 16 when he had that surgery,” Holly Merchant said.

During his junior year, Cole enrolled at the Hancock County Technical Center (splitting time with his classes at Sumner) and discovered a passion for working on cars. He planned on getting a degree in the field and dreamed of opening his shop, his parents said.


In class, he was quiet and humble, asked the best questions, and stepped in to help others. It was obvious he was thirsty for knowledge, said Tracy, the center’s director.

His parents loved watching him discover his calling and plan for his future.


Samantha Perry was working behind the counter at the Steuben Country Store on Dec. 10 when she saw an ambulance fly down Route 1. Police cruisers followed, sirens blaring.

“When you see that happening, everyone asks what’s going on,” Perry said on Thursday, standing near the same counter as fishermen just in from the docks stepped up to pay for drinks and gas.

It wasn’t long before word spread about a horrific crash on Unionville Road, a rural two-lane road that curves through the woods past clusters of houses.


Steuben Country Store employee Samantha Perry talked about the death of Cole Merchant, 17, of Sullivan, in a car accident last week. It was another blow for a tight-knit Down East community that has lost several teenagers in the last couple of years. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Dean and Holly Merchant were at home when they started getting messages about the crash.

The other Merchant children – Michael, a student at Maine Maritime Academy, and Gabby, a Sumner freshman – got the news on social media.

Cole’s parents knew he was involved well before a police officer could find them to tell them their son had died.

They rushed more than 20 miles to the crash site, where they were told he was in no shape to be seen. An officer confirmed his ID using the photo they gave him of Cole in his pink prom suit.

The Merchants waited at the scene, where glass and debris covered the road until their son’s body was loaded into a funeral home van.

It had begun to drizzle when the van had pulled up in front of them. Before it drove off, as they pressed their hands against its side and said goodbye to their boy, the rain turned to a downpour.


“It was like he was crying because he could see we were in pain,” Dean Merchant said.


Word of Cole’s death spread quickly, long before he was officially identified. The Merchants were flooded with messages from friends and strangers. Tylar’s mother called Cole’s mother to share her grief and encourage her to take it one day at a time.

At Sumner, Green, the principal, started arranging counseling for students and staff, a task he never thought he would do twice in one year at a school with only 280 students.

“Our community has taken a lot of hits,” he said. “This is devastating in and of itself – but when you compound that with the other losses, it makes it even more difficult.”

Katti Meeks, who works in the front office and has kids in the school, said students notice Cole’s empty chair in class and the seat he’s not sitting in on the bus.


At Sumner Memorial High School, students and faculty share messages in memory of Cole Merchant, a senior who was killed in a car crash in Steuben last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In the school’s front hall – just past a “Sumner Strong” sign scrawled in blue marker on a whiteboard – red, white, and blue paper hearts offer memories and messages for Cole’s family:

I remember going to middle school together and sitting by each other on the bus. You are and will forever be missed & loved Cole. 

The afternoon HCTC bus will never be the same without you. We love you forever and always. 

Cole you make us whole, you’re a Tiger forever. You light Sumner’s soul. 


The night after the crash, the school called off the girls’ basketball game. The team was back on the court Wednesday to play rival Jonesport-Beals. In this community, basketball is huge. On dark winter nights, games can get rowdy, especially when the rivals are in town.


Cole’s senior photo – featuring a mullet that reminds his mom of his baby curls – sat on a table near the door, next to the ticket cashbox and a donation bucket for his family. A local fisherman and his family sponsored the game in Cole’s memory, and all the money raised will go to his family.

Across the hall from the gym, middle and high school students dressed in black put on their holiday concert. The night felt both somber and joyful.

Claudette Potter, of Gouldsboro, said she felt she had to be there. Her son died in a car crash 27 years ago, and she understands the pain the Merchants are feeling. She worries about how the children are doing after such a string of losses.

“It’s just so horrible to lose another one,” she said from behind the concessions counter.

Claudette Potter prepares a hot dog for a customer at Sumner Memorial High School on Wednesday evening. Her son died in a car crash 27 years ago. She said she felt like she had to be there to support Cole’s family. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Amanda Crowley, a mother of three from Corea, said Cole’s death has been hard on everyone, even those who didn’t know him well.

“They’re all our kids,” she said.


As the basketball team warmed up, Dean and Holly Merchant sat in the middle of the stands as people reached out to hug them. It was hard for them to be there, but they didn’t want to be anywhere else. They knew Cole would want them to watch the games he loved.

Holly Merchant has spent a lot of time at the school in the past week. She’s found comfort in seeing her son’s classmates and teachers, in hugging them and hearing their stories. Sometime after the holidays, when they feel ready, the family will hold a celebration of Cole’s life at the school.

Before tipoff Wednesday, everyone in the gym paused for a moment of silence. The Sumner players stood with heads bowed, each holding a single white or pink rose.

Taylor Newenham, a senior on the varsity basketball team at Sumner Memorial High School, holds a rose before presenting it to Cole’s family. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Once introduced, each player walked across the gym to the spot where Holly Merchant sat surrounded by her family. One after another, she squeezed them in tight hugs as they handed her their flowers.

They wiped away their tears, and soon the gym was filled with the squeaks and thumps and cheers of the game, the soundtrack of winter in a basketball town.

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