Search for overdue fisherman leads to island rescue over rough terrain

Sun, 01/28/2024 - 10:15pm

    TENANTS HARBOR — A stokes basket carrying a fisherman was passed hand over hand across an island Sunday evening, Jan. 28, 2024, after search and rescuers tracked the overdue man to the treacherous terrain of a dark, wet, isolated rocky shore.

    Having set out earlier in the day to check his pilings on Rackliff Island, the man had arranged for his wife to pick him up at the Tenants Harbor public landing, 12 Commercial Street, at 4:15 p.m. At 4:45 p.m., when he still hadn’t arrived and her calls to his cellphone went to voicemail, the wife called 9-1-1, setting into motion Marine Patrol, St. George Fire and ambulance, and the Coast Guard, as well as the Knox County Sheriff’s Office as a first-response measure.

    Some Marine Patrol units headed to Rockland to board their closest vessel, and other MP drove to Tenants Harbor while St. George FD grabbed their apparatus and cruised to the shoreline. It was there that they received a tip: a property owner taking a walk on Southern Island before sunset heard the man moaning on a different island.

    Jumping into the large lobster boat Miller Time, captained by Ryan Miller, a search party of four firefighters, led by Mike Lunt, combed the waters until they spotted the man after 5 p.m. on Northern Island. He’d swam to shore after his skiff overturned in the water. This part of the island, however, was not easily accessible, and Miller Time was too large to come ashore. All parties at the scene needed to wait for the Marine Patrol skiff to relay the rescuers to shore. Marine Patrol officers who responded to the call were: Nicholas Stilwell, Callahan Crosby, Alexandre Michaud, Nicholas Simonenko, Keegan Nelligan and Sergeant Matthew Wyman. 

    Battered, cold, barely able to ambulate, and not the size of a teenage gymnast, the man waited in a drizzle that would intensify as the hours passed. The rescuers on the island brainstormed many options for getting him onto a boat, yet most were discarded for one reason or another. One of those early options was to strap him into the stokes and float him the 50 feet to the boat. The Command Coordinator at the Tenants Harbor landing, Asst. Fire Chief Chris Leavitt, balked at the idea. The fisherman had already spent time in the Atlantic that evening. No one, ordered Leavitt, would be putting him back in there.

    As a recourse, with the man’s insistence that he was able, they began to walk to the house on the other side of the island. It was a painfully slow walk. The rocks were rough and wet. Breaks every few minutes were necessary for the cold, wet man, and also for the crew as a whole as they squinted into the darkness, their flashlights too weak for the dense blackness. The lights aimed at them from vessels, too blinding to do any good.

    Soon, the man’s energy faded altogether. The stokes was pulled out, and the man strapped in. Coincidentally, the stokes comes with a tarp that is often wrapped around patients. Putting the fisherman into the stokes provided him with much needed warmth, and because a break was needed anyway, and strapping a person into the basket is a time-consuming process, a second team of rescuers had time to gear up, load into Miller Time, make the trip across the water, and climb into the smaller boat that would put them ashore. The strong advice from the islanders to the incoming party: wear boots. Along with the rough terrain through the woods, in the rain, after debarking from a skiff, the carrying team was working their way through tidal pools six inches deep.

    In all, thanks to the mutual aid response by South Thomaston Fire Dept., firefighters leapfrogging (or snaking) the patient across the island totaled 17 personnel. With that 17 was about five more Marine Patrol officers and some Coast Guard members.

    By 7:05 p.m., the walking party had picked up the stokes and began the procession. The second team arrived at the island at 7:15 p.m. At 7:26 p.m., they’d arrived at the lawn of the island’s house. He was removed from the island by a Marine Patrol small boat, transferred to a waiting U.S. Coast Guard vessel at aproximately 7:34 p.m., and then taken to shore in Tenants Harbor.

    At 7:51 p.m., he was back at the public dock, pulled up the gangway, into the waiting ambulance, and into the embrace of his wife before being transported to a local hospital.

    The last remaining island rescuers arrived back at the dock at 8:10 p.m.


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