Through the Ice
On the morning of January 20, 2005, Llynne Haskins was taking her cat to the vet in a snowstorm. The forty-six-year-old Rockland resident was driving her 1994 Chevy S-10 Blazer on Old County Road, a narrow, two-lane byway that connects the Penobscot Bay city with neighboring Thomaston, going past a series of deep quarries that Rockland uses as landfills. The road conditions were sketchy.
About a mile from her home, Haskins' Blazer went into a skid, careened over a snowbank, launched into the air, and plunged about a hundred feet into the water-filled quarry below.The impact took the SUV through a thin layer of ice, and the vehicle finally came to rest on a shelf thirty-five feet below the surface. Haskins was trapped inside and drowned. If a neighbor hadn't been shoveling her driveway, heard the crash, and seen a puff of snow, no one would have known what happened — Haskins simply would have disappeared.
The Maine State Police Dive Team usually handles the recovery of vehicles in these situations. But after inspecting the quarry that night, the team spokesman told city officials that, due to the thin ice and the depth of the vehicle, a rescue operation was simply too dangerous to be undertaken before spring. This decision meant that Llynne Haskins' body would sit in a quarry within sight of her home and family for at least three months.
Her son, Justin Dennison, whose own vehicle had plummeted into a nearby quarry in 2002, didn't want to wait that long. The family needed closure. "That's my mother in the quarry!" he told reporters. "[The State Police] gave up after five hours to find her. She's still down there." Dennison went to Rockland City Hall and placed eight thousand dollars on the desk of a city clerk to pay for the extraction, but the city declined.
So the family hired Dave Sinclair.
Sinclair was the longtime chief of the Maine State Police Dive Team. Since retiring from the force in 1995, he's been working as a professional diver — teaching classes, doing commercial jobs, leading shark- and wreck-diving trips in the summer, and pulling vehicles, and sometimes bodies, from beneath the ice. Now fifty-seven, the Wayne resident has been diving for more than forty years. And in a typical Maine winter, he's a busy man.
"Last year, we did eight snowmobiles, a couple of ATVs, an ice shack, a jeep, and the vehicle in Rockland," Sinclair says. Going through the ice is unfortunately a regular occurrence in Maine. That's largely due to the popularity of sports like ice fishing, snowmobiling, and ATV riding. Mainers commonly drive cars and trucks onto icebound water bodies to be closer to ice-fishing holes. They open up their snowmobiles on flat and fast expanses of lake. And they pull their kids in sleds behind ATVs. When you have thousands of people on the ice, there will always be some who use poor judgment.
"There are definitely times when you scratch your head," Sinclair says. "Some of the people we deal with, it's just plain amazing why they'd be in the position they're in." One example might be snowmobilers who enjoy "skimming" — that is, getting up enough speed to take their sleds across sections of open water — for fun. Their snowmobiles don't always make it across.
"We love those people," Sinclair jokes.
Every year the Maine Warden Service issues warnings to keep people clear of unsafe ice. And every year there are people who elect not to heed the advisories. "You always have people who don't seem to care what we say and venture out no matter what," says Warden Service spokesman Mark Latti.
Warmer winters have also posed a problem. The Warden Service compiles an annual "severity index" for Maine winters. Measuring snow depth and temperatures, it gives a rough idea of ice conditions. In the past two decades, most winters have either been classified as moderate or mild. Lakes and ponds that once froze solid have had patches of open water — to the great surprise of people who've grown accustomed to traveling across them.
"We [recovered] a snowmobile last year, and it was a hundred feet from this guy's house," Sinclair says. "He'd lived at the side of this lake for twenty years, and the water had never been open there."
And then there are unfortunate accidents like Llynne Haskins'. Six people have died along Rockland's Old County Road since the early 1960s. Haskins' family has said that the way the snow is plowed near the quarries, pushed up against an eighteen-inch high guardrail, essentially makes the side of the road into a launching pad. (The Maine Department of Transportation has recently erected new barriers there. State transportation committee members were reportedly "astounded" when they saw pictures of the scene.)
Whatever the case, the recovery of Haskins' vehicle put divers in a very dangerous position. State dive team commander Matt Grant said at a press conference: "Based on a number of factors, primarily safety issues, we decided that the recovery effort is best left until the ice and weather conditions improve for the divers' safety. Ideally, we would be looking for an open-water situation for the recovery of the vehicle and the deceased, which could be as late as March or early April."
During the week after the Rockland accident, Dave Sinclair inspected the scene for himself. The veteran diver could certainly understand the reluctance of the state police to tackle the job. "The depth, the obstructions, the precariousness of the vehicle situation — it was a difficult spot," he remembers, noting that the state dive team was under the mistaken impression that the Blazer was a hundred feet below the surface.
In truth, the SUV was much closer to the top, but just getting to the rocky shelf where Haskins lay suspended was a challenge. "Access was certainly an issue," says Sinclair. But the conditions had improved since the fateful night when the dive team made their decision. "The ice had frozen by the time we got there. It was several days later, and the ice had really hardened," Sinclair says. At the point where the vehicle crashed through, the ice was about six to eight inches thick. At other points it was more than a foot thick.
Sinclair assembled a crew of five divers, including his son, Matt, 26, an L.L. Bean employee and a principal part of his father's team. Matt would dress as the second diver, ready to get in the water if anything went wrong. The others would tend to safety lines, help with site preparation, keep equipment at the ready, and do the sundry other jobs it takes to safely put a diver under the ice. A local crane operator was contracted to do the heavy lifting. By the time Sinclair was ready to get in the water, on January 26, the weather was awful.
"That was a nasty, cold day," he says. "I don't recall the exact temperature, but there was a stiff breeze, and with the wind chill it was definitely below zero." This made a hazardous dive even more so. "The minute you hit the surface of the water everything freezes up instantly, and you have to take the time to thaw it out."
The water was no more welcoming. Maine quarries have a reputation for being repositories of all sorts of debris. "Anytime you can dive in a quarry, they're going to be full of junk," Sinclair says. "People will throw in fridges, bikes, cars, you name it." These obstacles not only make finding things more difficult, they pose a hazard to divers. The diver is attached to a safety line, which can easily get tangled or hung up on an obstruction. "The biggest concerns from a safety standpoint are equipment failure and entanglements. The last thing you want to do is cut your line when you're down there," Sinclair says. "It's amazing how quickly you can lose your sense of direction. To get your safety line wrapped around something underwater is not a good feeling."
Underwater obstructions and gear failure were both serious possibilities on that January day. The water was very cold, which can make scuba gear freeze up and fail. "We have regulators that are treated from the factory to prevent freeze ups, but they don't always work," he says. "I've had regulators fail, and you have to get back to the hole to survive."
Visibility was another issue. Sinclair compares diving in ice-covered lakes and quarries to diving in a coffee cup. "We've done some searches where you literally bump into the things you're looking for — that's pretty common, actually." And it was definitely dark in the Rockland case. "I don't think I could see more than eighteen inches in front of me," says Sinclair, who was equipped with a big halogen light.
Thanks to a lot of luck and years of experience, everything worked out. Sinclair was able to secure a line to the vehicle — which was lying on a shelf on its passenger side with its windows broken and doors jammed — so that it could be lifted to the surface. The recovery effort took the team about eight hours, start to finish.
Sinclair has pulled his share of corpses from the deep in a career dating back to the early 1970s. He began diving recreationally when he was growing up in Vassalboro and started to take it more seriously after he graduated from the University of Maine and enlisted in the navy. During his two-year stint, he traveled the world and got to dive in some exotic locales. He was hooked.
In the early seventies, Sinclair joined the Maine State Police. When it formed a dive team, he was one of its first members. This special operations unit is made up of an on-call group of specially trained cops who have other jobs in the state police. Sinclair also patrolled as a trooper, spent time in the drug unit, taught at the Criminal Justice Academy, and was commander of Troop D in Thomaston. The dive team assembled to search for evidence, to recover stolen property, or to fish out bodies. It wasn't fun work. People don't tend to throw things away in nice places.
"I've been in some nasty stinkholes," Sinclair says. "I've seen moose carcasses, deer carcasses, bags of puppies and kittens. It isn't glamorous work."
The base price Sinclair charges for recovering a submerged truck is $3,000. Snowmobiles begin at $1,200. "It all depends on how difficult a job is," he says. "I've had some [dives] go several days, and those will obviously cost more."
By state law, the owners of submerged vehicles have thirty days to get them out. Most cars and trucks are totaled, but recreational vehicles usually fare better. "Most snowmobiles and ATVs get going in pretty short order," says Sinclair. "It's just fresh water, and if you flush out the gas tank and lines, they're usually fine. They are built to be out in the elements. And the methods we use don't put a scratch on them."
None of these extractions are easy — "they're all dangerous," Sinclair says — and jobs like the Rockland one do give him pause. For the most part, though, the veteran diver relishes the adventure of ice diving. "It's an activity that's not for everybody," he says. "When you get down there it's dark, and you feel lonely, and you put a lot of trust in the people above.
"If you ask me why I did it, I'm probably a little crazy. But in the end there's a great sense of accomplishment that you did what you set out to do. It's good to give the families closure. I don't anticipate stopping," he says. "I enjoy the challenge."