SOUTHWEST HARBOR — “They were unbelievably tough and unbelievably brave,” Southwest Harbor volunteer firefighter Alex Bernier said of Julia Strauss and Jolie Deal, the 13-year-old girls who, along with Julia’s father, Eli Strauss, were rescued from an icy cliff above Long Pond after their snowmobile went into the water Jan. 17.
“The resilience of those two girls is likely what saved the three of them,” he said.
The three snowmobilers, who live in Mount Desert, had gone onto the snow-covered ice at the south end of the pond at around 3:30 p.m. and were riding north when the snowmobile broke through. With Strauss urging the girls to stay calm and focused, they were able to swim and scramble to the eastern shore at the base of Beech Mountain.
An early account of the incident said Strauss left the girls on the shore while he started to go for help. But that was inaccurate, according to Bernier.
“He never left the girls. They were with him the entire time.”
Wet and cold, the three began climbing up the steep slope with the goal of getting to higher ground where they could be seen more easily, all the time yelling in hopes that someone would hear them.
No one did, but Strauss’s wife, concerned that the trio had not returned home, called the police. Lt. Mike Miller of the Southwest Harbor Police Department drove to the boat launch at the south end of Long Pond. After walking some distance along the shore, he heard the victims yelling and raised the alarm.
Bernier and fellow Southwest Harbor firefighters Hugh O’Shields and Jenn Martel were the first emergency responders to arrive.
Bernier and O’Shields put on their ice rescue suits and walked up the pond until they heard distant screams and began following those sounds.
“Eventually we determined that they weren’t in the water; they were in the woods on the west side of Beech Mountain,” Bernier said. “We started up what’s probably the most extreme terrain in that area.
“There were a couple of times when we would climb up 10 feet and then tumble down 15 or 20 feet. You couldn’t really see with the fresh snow on the ice and rocks.”
After climbing to an elevation of about 150 feet above the pond, Bernier and O’Shields located the accident victims on a ledge.
The air temperature was in the mid-20s. Julia had lost her shoes, and Jolie had lost her sweatshirt somewhere along the way. Strauss was wearing a T-shirt and windbreaker.
“He was extremely hypothermic and showing signs of frostbite in his hands,” Bernier said. “He wasn’t able to talk at that point. He wasn’t able to use his arms or legs. The two girls were in much better shape.”
Meanwhile, emergency responders from several agencies had arrived at Long Pond. The two rescuers on the mountain notified them of their location and then stayed with the victims and tried to warm them up.
“The only gear we had with us was the ice rescue suits and the clothes we were wearing,” Bernier said. “We stripped off the rescue suits, which left us in jeans and socks. We put the father in my rescue suit and Hugh used his to shield him from the wind.”
They also took off the sweatshirts they had been wearing under their rescue suits and gave them to the girls.
Before long, another group of rescuers made their way up the cliff to help get the victims down. They rigged up 250-foot-long ropes to trees to provide guidance and support. Jolie was able to walk down. Julia, the one who had lost her shoes, could only make it about halfway down, according to Bernier.
“She kept slipping, and we’d be dangling and hanging onto the rope, so I decided it would be easier just to carry her down. I had her climb onto my back and hold on as tight as she could as we went down. We were able to get to some other rescuers who assisted me.”
Both girls were taken to ambulances that were waiting at the boat launch. They were examined at Mount Desert Island Hospital and released.
Bringing Eli Strauss off the mountain was much more difficult than getting the girls to safety, Bernier said.
“They had to bring a Stokes litter up and rig some additional lines to get him well secured. It was a slow, tedious process bringing him down the mountain as controlled as possible.”
It took 90 minutes to carefully lower Strauss the estimated 800 feet the group had climbed, back down to the water level.
Six hours after the snowmobile went into the water, Strauss was taken to the hospital. He was released the next morning.
Jolie Deal’s parents, Debra Deal and Rogier van Bakel, said they weren’t really worried until about 5:15 p.m., when it was fully dark outside and their daughter wasn’t home.
“Debra and I were frantic with worry at first and then hugely relieved that everyone made it out alive, if hypothermic,” van Bakel said.
“They were soaking wet, in the dark, without fire or shelter or flashlights for four hours. It could easily have ended in unspeakable tragedy, but the local fire departments, police departments, paramedics and a big team of citizen volunteers all performed beautifully.
“I have the greatest admiration and deep, deep gratitude for the 50 or so people who were involved,” van Bakel said.
Taking part in the rescue along with the Southwest Harbor Fire Department were crews from the Mount Desert Fire Department, Tremont Volunteer Fire Department, Southwest Harbor-Tremont Ambulance Service, Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service, Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue and the Maine Warden Service. Individuals helped by plowing the access and staging area, and the Southwest Harbor Highway Department put down salt and sand.
Tremont Fire Chief Keith Higgins was in charge of the rescue personnel, while Southwest Harbor Deputy Fire Chief Tommy Chisholm was in command of the overall operation.
Chisholm said that once the first two rescuers were on the ice about 100 yards from shore, he sent three people behind them with more equipment.
“They were pulling a little sled that had warming blankets and a lot of tools of the trade that they might need,” he said.
“Once they got to the point where they were transitioning from the ice to rock climbing, they set an LED light so the snowmobiles and UTV (side-by-side) that came after them knew exactly where they were to go and wouldn’t turn out onto unsafe ice.”
It was a complex operation that, with so many people from several different agencies involved, could have been chaotic.
“But everything went pretty much like clockwork,” Chisholm said. “Everybody was communicating. It was not just one single person. It couldn’t have been done without everyone working together.”
But Chisholm said that if anyone deserves special recognition, it is “those people who decided to leave the safety of that parking lot to go out in the middle of a snowstorm at night on unknown ice and then decide to climb a mountain. Hats off to them.”
As one of those who climbed the mountain, Bernier said what most impressed him was the courage and composure of the 13-year-old girls he helped rescue.
“At no point when we were on the mountain were they worried about themselves,” he said. “They were primarily worried about the father. They never complained about being cold. They never cried.”