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Details of Rangeley Snowmobile Tragedy Begin to Unfold
01/03/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

It's day three of the search for three missing snowmobilers who are believed to have plunged into open water on Rangeley Lake Sunday night. Recovery efforts were suspended yesterday because of strong winds and fog. But as weather improved late this morning searchers deployed divers, airboats, sonar, and aircraft. And as Susan Sharon reports, local residents are still trying to understand how the most tragic night in Maine's snowmobile history unfolded.

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Details of Rangeley Snowmobile Tragedy Begin to Un Listen

Snowmobilers 7

Maine wardens search Rangeley Lake for signs of three snowmobilers missing since Sunday.

This was the sound of the only machine moving over Rangeley Lake: a small search plane helping with the cold and difficult recovery of three snowmobilers from southern Maine, who apparantly got lost Sunday night and were trying to make their way back to their vehicles in Carrabassett Valley.

Lt. Kevin Adam of the Maine Warden Service says the three were low on fuel and may have hoped to take a shortcut across the lake. "Conditions that night were extremely high winds. We had a lot of blowing snow so it would have been very poor visibility on trails or on the lake, and so that definitely would have been a factor."

But even worse than the blowing snow and subzero temperatures that night was the fact that a large section of the lake, not far from shore, is open water. It's clearly visible as you drive into town.

Snowmobilers 4Locals call this area of the lake Greenvale Cove, and they said it never freezes until mid-January, and they avoid it until later in the season. Signs on local snowmobile trails leading to the lake are posted with small flourescent orange handwritten warnings: "Lake Not Frozen."

And the local snowmobile club's Web site and answering machine offer advice about trail and lake conditions: "Our trail conditions are generally good. We are on a regular grooming schedule. Please be aware that there is still extensive open water on Rangeley Lake. We've had some tragedies there already and we don't certainly encourage anyone to be out on any of the lakes until further notice."

Just last week, wardens held a news conference to issue a warning about the poor condition of ice around the state. But the three men who are now missing - cousins Kenneth and Glenn Henderson, and their friend John Spencer - were not alone in attempting to travel on Rangeley Lake Sunday night.

Snowmobilers 1Forty-four-year-old Dawn Newell of Yarmouth, who was riding separately with her 16-year-old son, also mistakenly rode into open water. Her body was recovered the next day.

At first wardens thought the two incidents were entirely unrelated. But Lt. Adam says they later learned that the men may have crossed paths with Newell and her son on Sunday.

"They followed Dawn down to Rangeley here. They went over to a local establishment here, had something to eat and then - I don't know - they all did leave at the same time," he says. "I don't know if they were going to follow one another, or what the plan was then, but we know that when they got out here they split up a little bit."

"It's just poor judgement. All people that weren't from here, they don't know what the conditions are, they should not have been out there, period," says Dave Duschene of Rangeley, a volunteer who helped with search efforts for Newell.

Deschene says the deaths illustrate the importance of speaking to locals and checking out trail conditions with the local snowmobile club. He says rescue conditions Sunday night scared him when he rode out to help with his machine.  "I knew there was open water out there, and I could not see the ice."

Snowmobiling is big business in the region. Judy Morton, executive director of the Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce, calls it a leading industry. And with more than 150 miles of groomed trails, several snowmobile businesses and dozens of lodges that cater to riders, Morton says the town does what it can to ensure the safety of visitors.

"We always say that the lake is never safe," she says. "The falls aren't as cold as they used to be. It used to be that by Thanksgiving time you'd have an opportunity to get out on the lake, but the last eight to 10 years we hope to have the lake safe by the middle of January."

Wardens say with another couple of weeks of freezing temperatures, ice conditions should improve around the state.

Photos by Susan Sharon.


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