Gary Phillips, 50, was driving home from the gym to celebrate his daughter’s 5th birthday when a falling tree hit his vehicle and killed him in Searsport, according to his wife, Hailee Phillips, left, who was on the phone with him when the crash occurred. Photo courtesy of Hailee Phillips

Hurricane Lee proved anticlimactic for many Mainers, who saw wind and rain but little real destruction Saturday as the downgraded storm spun east toward Canada. But one Winterport family was left to grieve Lee’s lone Maine fatality.

Around 9 a.m. Saturday, Gary Phillips, 50, was driving home from the gym to celebrate his daughter’s 5th birthday. He was in Searsport when a tree fell, hit his vehicle and killed him, according to his wife, Hailee Phillips, who was on the phone with him when it happened.

As electric companies have restored power throughout the state and most people have moved on from Lee, Phillips has been trying to make sense of the death of her husband, who she said had reformed his risk-taking streak so that his family would not have to bury him young.

“His biggest fear was leaving us behind,” Phillips said.


In his younger days, Gary Phillips was daring to the point of being irresponsible, his wife said. He liked to go fast – too fast – on motorcycles, snowmobiles and anything else with an engine to rev.


But after he met Hailee in 2017 and realized his dream of becoming a father the following year, he decided his adrenaline-seeking days were over.

He could have been killed a long time ago, he told his wife. God must have kept him alive for a reason: to be there for his wife and daughter.

“Once Kinslee came along he really slowed down,” Hailee Phillips said. “He always said he could never imagine me having to tell her that he’s not around.”

He traded wheelies for family road trips. In October, the trio planned to rent a car in Bangor and drive to Florida to visit Disney World and the Tampa zoo with family. He no longer pushed the accelerator past 100 mph. Dancing with Kinslee in the living room was more his speed – he supplied the speaker, she picked the music.

His one remaining outlet for risk-taking was the used car dealership the couple started out of their home in 2021, named KGP Auto Sales after Kinslee’s initials. Even though the business didn’t come with a steady paycheck, Hailee Phillips said it turned out not to be that big a gamble for her husband, who combined a love of numbers with an extensive knowledge of cars.

He’d spend hours scouring Facebook Marketplace for potential deals, and he loved the thrill of negotiating a bargain. On weekends, the family would sometimes go on long drives to scout potential buys. The dealership was Gary’s passion, Hailee Phillips said, but this was a family that did almost everything together, even simple chores like grocery shopping.


“It was busy,” she said. “It was fun.”


Like others around the state, Gary Phillips closely tracked news reports about Hurricane Lee’s arrival. He knew that heavy rainfall had saturated the soil and increased the likelihood of falling branches and power outages, so he bought extra gas for the family’s generator, his wife said.

After making breakfast for the family on Saturday morning, he decided the wind didn’t look bad and he drove to the gym in Belfast. He didn’t take his usual shortcut to get home – probably, Hailee Phillips said, because he figured Route 1 would be safer than back roads. When she texted him to watch out for downed power lines on their street, he called her from behind the wheel.

“I didn’t see what you sent,” he told her. “You know I don’t answer texts on the road.”

Then Hailee Phillips heard a shout and a crash, before her husband stopped responding to her urgent cries. She tried to call 911 but initially couldn’t get through to a dispatcher. While she struggled to get information, Kinslee sat next to her, asking why her father wouldn’t answer their calls.


When Hailee Phillips got confirmation that there had been a crash in Searsport, she recruited a friend to pick up her daughter and give her a birthday to remember. Though the party was canceled, Kinslee and a few friends went to a trampoline park in Bangor and shared cupcakes. When Kinslee returned home, her mother shared the news the hospital had confirmed over the phone: her father had died there from the injuries caused by a tree hitting his car.

The loss has been difficult for Kinslee, who “thinks (her dad) hung the moon,” Phillips said. She’s working to connect her daughter with resources to help her grieve.

Phillips has struggled to come to grips with the random nature of the crash. What were the odds, she wonders, that a tree would hit her husband while he was on the phone with her? What were the odds he would be killed on his daughter’s birthday? She’s also been frustrated to see others downplay the storm as a joke. For her family, it was just as destructive as a Category 5 hurricane.

But she has found a silver lining in the support she’s received from the community. As of Tuesday evening, more than 300 people had raised over $27,000 to support Hailee and Kinslee Phillips and to cover funeral expenses.

“It’s honestly overwhelming,” she said. “I know that he’s thankful, too. His biggest fear was to leave us behind, so to know that we have the support – I think he feels comfort in that.”

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