Sunday, August 23, 2009

Acadian Nightmare

The post–Hurricane Bill seas today were even more spectacular than they were on Saturday. The morning rain cleared, the sun was bright and hot, and we headed back to the Thunder Hole area after breakfast, knowing that hundreds of others would have the same idea. Parking was a challenge.

The observation deck at Thunder Hole was closed and locked, with warning signs posted. But the surrounding ledges and cliffs — even more dangerous sightseeing spots — and the roadside trail were packed with chattering people with cameras. Some of the people on rock ledges close to the water were taking real risks with their lives because there were rogue waves; there were too many people and too many risky places along the cliffs for the park rangers to control. We walked further down towards Otter Cliffs and found our own shady spot to watch the waves in the last hour or two before high tide.

I've never seen a natural spectacle this magnificent. The tides were mesmerizing: violent, scary, beautiful, ever-changing. In my mind I heard a soundtrack of songs I haven't remembered in years and never planned to revisit: "Surfin' Safari," and the themes from Hawaii-Five-0 and Dark Shadows, one of my favorite shows as a kid. I'd completely forgotten those dark, Gothic waves crashing through the credits.

Suddenly a few tiny, dark, bobbing objects appeared in the foamy waves in front of us. I thought it was driftwood, but a woman sitting near me let out a shout. There were three people trapped in those immense waves. They were clearly working to remain vertical as if they were practicing drownproofing. The waves were dragging them past us towards the rocks of Thunder Hole, surging over them and then forcing them back to the surface. They must have been hit by an unexpectedly high wave and knocked from their viewing spot on some nearby ledge. All we could do was watch in horror, not believing our eyes.

A family of four, including a teenaged, ponytailed son, was standing next to us. We stood and pointed and watched until we couldn't see the figures anymore. My distance vision isn't great. "Do you still see them?" I finally asked the boy. He looked me in the eye and looked down. "I can't see them anymore." They were being pulled down the coast by riptides but kept surfacing after every towering wave. Then they were gone. People around us had been running around to find a ranger and dialing their phones, and rangers soon came along, clearing the rocks of spectators and announcing that help was on the way. We continued to stare into the waves for what seemed like a half hour, hoping to see those bobbing heads again, or a Coast Guard patrol boat, or a helicopter. We saw only the surf.

Emergency vehicles arrived and people were told to clear the parking lot and the road of cars to make room for an emergency station. The park closed down and a massive traffic jam built up behind us. Ambulances carried off a few injured people, who must have also been swept down towards the sea. As we walked to our car we came upon them, bleeding and dazed, carefully being strapped onto stretchers. They were conscious; we were relieved. We finaly saw a boat heading towards the area where we last saw the swimmers, a spotter plane flew overhead. It had been a long time since the swimmers disappeared.

Hours later, we still felt stunned. To have stood there, helplessly, watching those three people vanishing under that wild water.

There were no new reports until late afternoon, and we continued to hope that the three had found safety on the rocks out of our line of vision. According to the latest stories this evening, everyone has been accounted for and one little girl has died. I will be so relieved if they really have survived, but I can't forget what we saw and how we felt. Will we read stories soon about how they survived that pounding surf? I hope so. Will this teach others to stay in safe spots in wild weather and waves? Don't count on it.

We drove home, encountering some washed-out, rock-strewn roadways — some had giant waves crashing over them, in fact — but found our own harbor, Southwest, remarkably calm, just as always. The skies were clear, the sun was hot. You'd never know there was such drama and sorrow on the other side of this little island.

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