RANGELEY – A recovery effort for three missing snowmobilers has been suspended because of poor weather, and it might not resume until Thursday, according to the Maine Warden Service. Meanwhile, residents are struggling to understand why five snowmobilers drove onto unstable ice Sunday night and directly into a 1-mile stretch of open water.

During a news conference Tuesday morning, Lt. Kevin Adam said the recovery effort on Rangeley Lake will not continue until the strong wind subsides. Searchers plan to use sonar equipment to find the men, who are presumed dead, but persistent 2- to 3-foot whitecaps on the lake are preventing searchers from launching the boat that houses the equipment.

A 30 mph wind, which has been steadily blowing for several days in Rangeley, is a curse and a blessing, Adam said. The wind is hampering the recovery, but it’s also preventing new ice from forming at the site where Glenn Henderson, 43, of Sabattus; Kenneth Henderson, 40, of China; and John Spencer, 41, of Litchfield, presumably drove into the water.

When the wind calms down, the wardens will have to work quickly as the surface begins to freeze, he said. When it does freeze, searchers may lose the ability to use sonar equipment, which will make the operation much trickier. The water at the site is between 60 and 100 feet deep. Warden service divers are equipped to reach to those depths, but it is “right on the edge” of what is possible, Adam said.

On Monday morning, wardens recovered the body of Dawn Newell, 45, of Yarmouth, which was found floating in the open water 16 hours after she went in. Earlier reports from the warden service said Newell’s death was a separate incident, but Adam said Tuesday the accidents were somewhat related.

On Sunday afternoon, Newell and her 16-year-old son met the Hendersons and Spencer on a snowmobile trail, and then they all drove their sleds to a downtown restaurant, Adam said. At 7 p.m., all five left the restaurant and drove their sleds onto the lake ice. Shortly afterward, the parties split up and went in different directions.

Visibility was poor at the time of the incident, Adam said. Wind-driven snow had created whiteout conditions Sunday night, which could have disoriented the sledders and prevented them from seeing the open water until it was too late. All five snowmobilers drove into the lake through the same 1-mile hole in the ice, although in two locations. The water temperature was in the mid-30s, Adam said.

Newell’s son, who was among those who drove into the water, contrary to earlier reports, was able to climb out and call 911 to seek help for his mother and himself.

The other three sledders were reported missing at 2:30 a.m. Monday. High wind hampered the search for them until dawn, Adam said. Then, as wardens searched the lake for Newell, they also found the tracks of the other party leading into the water. There they found helmets and gloves belonging to the men.

“I’ve been a game warden for 21 years. I can’t think of another incident where four people went in to the same body of water in one night,” Adam said.

Rangeley is a popular destination for snowmobilers, said Lee Libby, a snowmobile guide in the town of 1,325 residents. For Libby, the importance of snowmobiling for the local economy can be summed up in a single word.

“Key,” he said. “Without it, we starve.”

Libby sat on a stool Tuesday morning in the BMC Diner on Richardson Avenue, where several other customers were talking about the tragedy. Libby said it’s typical for Rangeley Lake to be unsafe at this time of year, and locals are well aware of its dangers.

“I won’t go on it until the first or second week of January,” he said. “They shouldn’t have been out there.”

Every year in late January, Rangeley hosts Snodeo — a three-day festival for snowmobilers. If the ice is unstable then, the Rangeley Snowmobile Club posts signs at access points along the lake to warn snowmobilers away, said Libby, 45. Currently, there are no such signs.

“Most people know it isn’t safe right now,” he said. “When you pull into town, you can see that big open hole.”

At a nearby booth, Alex Allan, 33, said the town needs a better system for informing tourists about the lake ice.

“The hotels, the rental shops, et cetera need to have a better system. They need to collaborate to let people know that the lakes aren’t safe,” he said.

Farther east, at Lyons Lakeview Cabins, co-owner Pauline Lyons said she tells early-season customers that the ice is unsafe when they book rental cabins. She tells them they’ll have to trailer their snowmobiles from the waterfront property to the trails, because they are forbidden to use the ice until later this month.

Her husband, Tim Lyons, said the tragedy has been weighing on his mind. He has been praying for the wind to die down so the search for the missing men can continue. Lyons, 52, has been snowmobiling since he was a child. Fifteen years ago, he and his wife moved to moved to Rangeley from Madison specifically for the snowmobiling. About 95 percent of the Lyons’ wintertime business comes from vacationing snowmobilers.

Five years ago, Tim Lyons’ sled broke through the ice on Rangeley Lake, but he quickly scrambled out of the water. He was lucky, but it was a painful experience, he said.

“You know when you hit a baseball wrong, and the bat stings your fingers? When you go into the water, it stings just like that all over your body, wherever you’re wet,” he said.

Libby also has broken through the ice on a sled, on a different body of water.

“As soon as you’re in the water, you can’t breathe. It instantly constricts everything and takes your breath right away,” he said. “When it’s this cold, you’ve got about 15 minutes and you’re done.”

Libby said he’s unsure whether the tragedy will dampen business this season. Novice snowmobilers might be shaken by the news, but veterans of the sport — who understand that the accident could have been avoided — will be less affected by it, he said.

“Snowmobilers are pretty resilient people.”

Meanwhile, Adam said ice throughout the state is unsafe, and he urged caution.

“This is really hard on families,” he said of the recovery operation. “I just beg people: Do not go out on the ice unless you absolutely know it’s safe.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Ben McCanna can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

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