AUGUSTA, MAINE — Rangers at Acadia National Park insisted Monday that they had done all they could to warn visitors before beauty suddenly turned brutal, launching a hurricane-generated wave over a group of gawkers, dragging several into the roiling Atlantic and killing a 7-year-old girl.
Many visitors didn’t heed alerts Sunday to keep back from huge waves that crashed spectacularly and dangerously against the rocky shore as Hurricane Bill passed over open ocean to the east, the park’s chief ranger said.
Two people were hospitalized after being pulled into the churning surf by a wave that crashed on the rocks about 150 yards from a popular attraction known as Thunder Hole, where plume-like sprays rise into the air even under less severe conditions. A viewing platform there had already been closed by the park because of the dangerous conditions.
The wave swept over 20 people, 11 of whom were taken to the hospital with injuries including broken bones from being slammed onto the rocks, officials said. Several people were tossed into the water, and all but three managed to pull themselves out.
Spectators eager to take in the views of dramatic surf began filling up Acadia, about 75 miles east of Augusta, the state capital, on Sunday morning, Chief Ranger Stuart West said. As the tide rose, generating even bigger waves, 10,000 people eventually parked along the road to view the waves spun off by Bill, West said.
Adding to the allure was the weather. Normally, storms produce rainy or misty conditions along the shore. But Sunday’s weather was dry and bright.
The park dispatched seven rangers to the area to warn spectators to keep away from the rocks, where 12- to 15-foot waves were breaking, West said.
“They were doing it all day long,” he said. “But some folks weren’t grasping how fierce the ocean can be.”
Three signs warning of “dangerous waves and rip currents” had also been posted at parking areas, which were closed off to new cars once they had filled.
Other rangers were posted at potentially dangerous areas throughout the 36,000-acre park to keep visitors away from rocks and cliffs, West said.
James Kaiser, a local photographer who was at the scene, agreed that people did not heed warnings to stay away from the waves.
“I was standing next to a ranger who kept telling people to back away from the rocks,” he said. “It was a pretty tough order because people were drawn to the rocks, where there were better views.”
A little after noon, a huge wave crashed into the shore, sucking the visitors out to sea. The Coast Guard responded shortly afterward to a call from rangers and dispatched a boat and two aircraft.
The girl who drowned was 7-year-old Clio Dahyun Axilrod of New York City, said Sgt. Jay Carroll of the Maine Marine Patrol. Her father, Peter Axilrod, was pulled from the water, as was 12-year-old Simone Pelletier of Belfast, Maine. Clio Axilrod was declared dead about two hours after being pulled out.
Her father remained at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor on Monday, along with his wife. Authorities didn’t know the extent of their injuries. Pelletier was taken to Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor with injuries not considered life threatening.
Petty Officer Joshua McGowan, one of the rescuers, said waves were big enough to jostle the crew about the boat, making the effort more difficult during the roughly 20 minutes the survivors were treading the 55- to 60-degree water.
“We’re trained to go in that kind of stuff,” he said. “My main concern was to get those people out of the water as fast as possible.”
In the southern Maine resort town of Old Orchard Beach, 22 people who failed to heed warnings of heavy surf had to be rescued Sunday, officials said.
“Some people disregarded (beach) closing signs, red flags and warnings from lifeguards,” fire chief John Glass said Monday. They were brought ashore by lifeguards using torpedo floats and rescue surf boards.
July and August are the busiest time of the year at Acadia, which draws about 2 million visitors annually and is known for its vistas of seaside mountains, as well as the rocky shores associated with Maine.
Closing Acadia, which is on an island and has numerous points of entry, wouldn’t work. Closing off the shoreline road would be like “squeezing a balloon” and just force visitors to another area, West said.
“People come to the park to see the crashing surf; that’s what Acadia is all about,” he said. “We were all set for fierce weather. We were as prepared as we possibly could be for this.”