LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, N.H. — Temperatures were in the single digits and a light snow was blowing as the sun rose over Meredith Bay, but the carnival atmosphere was already well underway on the frozen waters of Lake Winnipesaukee. Bob houses dotted the ice, filled with fishermen dropping their first lines of the derby, as thousands of spectators streamed onto the lake, gawking at the scene, surveying the catches, and visiting the many food vendors selling out of trucks parked out there with them.
It was Saturday, Feb. 11, opening day of the 38th annual Great Meredith Rotary Fishing Derby, a giant ice fishing competition that draws upward of 10,000 people to the state’s largest lake.
Everything looked postcard-perfect. But looks can be deceiving.
Down in Concord, where the state’s Fish and Game Department is headquartered, Colonel Kevin Jordan was worried. He’s the chief of law enforcement for a department whose mission includes search and rescue work, and he already had teams in place all around the lake, patrolling on snowmobiles and ATVs and trucks, doing their usual job of checking fishing licenses and making sure everyone was behaving.
But that wasn’t what had him uneasy that morning. It was the weather. He always worries about derby weekend, with so many people on the ice, but this year was different. It was, he knew, the “perfect storm of conditions for a disaster.”
It had been warm that Wednesday, a high of 47 degrees, and stretches of the lake had been open water. Then it got cold for a few days, enough to form a light layer of ice in those spots. And then came the real kicker — it had snowed just enough to cover those thin areas.
The ice in Meredith Bay, where the derby is headquartered, was plenty thick. It was the rest of the 28-mile-long lake he was worried about. The usual advisories had gone out, from his department and the derby organizers, warning people to use caution on the ice and never assume it is safe.
People would go through the ice. He knew that. It happens every year. Trucks. Snowmobiles. ATVs. Typically, people can get themselves out or rescuers can get to them in time.
What he did not know, what no one knew, was that Saturday morning was the beginning of the worst day in the history of Lake Winnipesaukee.
. . .
Mark O’Connell, David Crosier, and Steven Weiss were old buddies from Westborough, Mass. It was O’Connell’s 62nd birthday, and he had invited friends to his vacation home on Long Island in Moultonborough, on the northern end of the lake, to celebrate and enjoy the festivities of derby weekend. There was also going to be another surprise — Crosier was going to tell his friends that he was retiring.
At 10:15 a.m., according to the detailed account Weiss later gave authorities, they set out on three snowmobiles from O’Connell’s backyard and made a loop around the island, staying close to shore, with Weiss in the lead and the two others following him, keeping about 75 feet between them. They stopped a few times to survey all the bob houses and trucks parked on the ice near a marina on the other end of an island and to check out a new house being built.
After an hour, they were about three-quarters of the way around the island when Weiss stopped to ask where they wanted to go next. O’Connell told him that he always liked to head to Meredith Bay to see the fish on the leaderboard, so they decided to make the 6-mile journey across the ice, a route that would wind around several islands.
Weiss asked O’Connell to take the lead because he knew the area better, and asked if they should stay close to land. O’Connell said no, but told both men to maintain a 40 miles per hour speed and follow him. Snowmobilers know that as a magic number that could allow them to skim open water or thin ice for short distances. Skimming, or skipping, is a delicate and dangerous maneuver. It’s illegal to do it intentionally, though many do, as a sort of sport. It can also save a snowmobiler’s life in an emergency.
O’Connell started off, with Weiss behind him and Crosier in the rear, and they rounded the tip of Long Island and began heading west across the ice.
They had traveled only 500 to 1,000 feet when Weiss could see that O’Connell was increasing speed, accelerating hard. He was quickly 400 to 500 yards ahead of the other two. When Weiss turned to see how Crosier was doing, he saw that the ice under his own machine was breaking apart. He was now in the channel between Long and Sandy islands, and in that split-second he made a decision to turn right and floor it toward Long Island, about 250 yards away.
He never let off the gas, and as he headed toward shore, the tips of the skis were above water but the track behind him was sinking deeper and deeper. When he was about 10 feet from shore, the snowmobile crashed through, and he managed to wade the last few yards through thigh-high slush to the shore near a cluster of vacation houses. He threw off his helmet, turned, and saw in the distance Crosier’s helmet just above the surface in the middle of the channel. He could not see O’Connell anywhere.
Weiss yelled for Crosier to pull himself up onto the ice, then ran to the houses and began banging on doors and screaming for help.
There was no one home at the houses, and no one heard his cries.
. . .
When the human body is plunged into icy water, it reacts quickly and severely. “For lack of a better term, the body freaks out,” said Dr. Stuart Harris, chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Wilderness Medicine. “You get this dumping of adrenaline that causes your heart rate to go up, your blood pressure to go up, and most importantly, it triggers an involuntary gasping where you’re taking deep breaths involuntarily. If the head goes underwater, you can drown almost immediately.”
If you can survive the initial gasping and get breathing under control while keeping your head above water, then you have about 10 minutes of meaningful movement — to swim, to grasp things, to try to pull yourself up on the ice. After that, the ability to self-rescue diminishes rapidly. If you can’t get onto the ice in those 10 minutes, or at least secure yourself to some means of flotation, you have about an hour before multisystem organ failure and death.
“If you don’t have someone coming to rescue you right away,” Harris said, “or you haven’t made preparations beforehand to keep from getting into trouble, it is unlikely that you’re going to get out alive.”
. . .
On the shore at Long Island, Weiss found a small white boat, managed to cut the rope securing it, but could not find an oar. He pushed it through the slush, thinking he could somehow walk and swim his way out to Crosier, pulling the boat, but as he waded again through the icy water he realized it was going to be futile. His lower body was so heavy and sluggish with cold he could hardly move.
He walked through a backyard to the road, he later told police, screaming for help, banging on more doors with no success. He walked more than a half-mile, soaking wet and freezing, and came to a larger road where he flagged down a car. Call 911, he told the driver.
It had been nearly 40 minutes since everything had gone wrong.
. . .
Fish and Game Lieutenant Bradley Morse was on a snowmobile trail in Center Harbor with another officer when the call came in over his radio.
Morse is in charge of the Lakes Region, the point person for all rescues, and when he heard how long it had been since the snowmobilers had gone in, he knew they had to move fast. The first thing he did was call Tuftonboro Fire and Rescue, located on the east side of the lake, to request their air boat, a flat-bottomed vessel powered by a huge fan on the back, the sort you see in the Florida Everglades. It is the only way to travel safely over thin ice and open water, and there are only three of them in the whole state. One was staged near the derby, but that was too far away. Tuftonboro was their only chance.
As Tuftonboro Fire raced up Route 109 to Moultonborough to a pier where rescuers could unload the boat from its trailer, Fish and Game officers from all corners of the lake rushed across the ice on snowmobiles.
Snow was blowing and visibility wasn’t great, but two officers made it to the shore of Long Island, not far from O’Connell’s home, and were able to spot him with binoculars, about 1,000 feet offshore. He was way out in open water — it appeared he’d managed to skim his snowmobile for several hundred feet before going in — and there was no way the Fish and Game officers could get to him on snowmobiles. They watched helplessly as O’Connell, who had made his way to the ice edge, fought to pull himself up. Over and over, he managed to heave himself onto the thin ice, only to crash through again. As the officers waited for the air boat and watched through binoculars, O’Connell stopped moving.
. . .
Tuftonboro Fire unloaded the air boat at Pier 19 in Moultonborough and raced across the ice, arriving first at the spot where Weiss had seen Crosier’s helmet. When they arrived, the helmet was all they found. Weiss watched from shore, and when he learned Crosier couldn’t be seen, he finally agreed to get into an ambulance and let medical crews check him out.
The crew on the air boat noted the location of Crosier’s helmet on their GPS, then sped around the point of Long Island, where the Fish and Game officers were standing on a jetty, pointing through the blowing snow toward the spot where they’d seen O’Connell fighting to get back on the ice.
The air boat blasted west, toward Birch Island, and the rescuers on board spotted O’Connell’s helmet through the whipping snow. When they arrived, O’Connell was face-down in the water. They pulled him onto the boat, where paramedics began CPR, and raced to shore. A waiting ambulance took him to Lakes Region General Hospital. O’Connell never regained consciousness.
. . .
In Concord, Colonel Jordan was deploying the state dive team to look for Crosier. The rescue effort had become a recovery. And he was dealing with ice accidents all over the state. There were 17, involving people, snowmobiles, ATVs, or trucks going through the ice on lakes and rivers around New Hampshire. At one point, Jordan realized that if a hiker got hurt in the White Mountains, he would have no one available to go help. Volunteer mountain rescue groups would have to step in.
As he was dealing with all those demands, Jordan said, he got a call from the state’s new governor, Chris Sununu, and could feel the urgency coming through the phone.
Sununu was with the state’s top safety officials, preparing for a big nor’easter that was expected to slam the state that night, and when he learned about the tragedy unfolding on Lake Winnipesaukee, he wanted to take action. There were thousands of people out on that ice, and Sununu wanted them off.
The governor asked Jordan if he could shut down the lake and offered to deploy the National Guard. But Jordan told him it was impossible. Lake Winnipesaukee covers 71 square miles, and not even the National Guard could shut down the 280 miles of coastline. Plus, there were no laws to keep people off. The ice always has the potential to be dangerous, he told the governor, no matter the weather. He told the governor that if people followed proper safety precautions, they should be safe.
They decided to take advantage of the large media presence at the fishing derby and with the governor to get word out quickly of the dangers on the lake. And they repeated safety reminders — proceed slowly, check the ice depth regularly, stay away from unfamiliar areas. No one wanted another fatality.
. . .
Fish and Game’s air boat arrived back at the spot where Crosier’s helmet had been found, and deployed a newly acquired piece of equipment, a small remote-controlled submarine armed with a camera and a robotic arm, to attempt to try to find Crosier’s body without having to put divers under the ice.
In Concord, Jordan got back on the phone with the governor to update him, and while they were speaking he got a call on the other line from Lieutenant Morse at the scene. It was about 2:45, and he hoped it was good news, that they had found Crosier and he would not have to put divers into the dangerous conditions under the ice. But Jordan could hear the stress in Morse’s voice.
“We’ve got more people in the water,” Morse said. “And they’re in The Broads.”
. . .
The Broads is the name given to the deepest and most unpredictable section of Lake Winnipesaukee, where depths can reach more than 100 feet and currents can make the ice extremely thin and dangerous. Many locals won’t go anywhere near it in winter.
Arnaud Remy and his 15-year-old son, Arthur, had traveled from Mamaroneck, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, to fish in the derby. Young Arthur was an avid fisherman, and the high school sophomore had even started a small fishing business, called Hook-in-a-Box.
They had been fishing with five other people on thick ice at the southern end of the lake, near the family’s vacation home in Alton Bay. At some point, as a state Fish and Game officer later recounted, father and son decided to take a break and go for a ride on their snowmobiles. They headed north, around the point of Rattlesnake Island, with Arthur in the lead and his father following behind, heading straight for The Broads.
As the Remys sped by, some fishermen who knew the area watched with horror, knowing that area had been open water just days before.
They dialed 911 when they saw the splash and later told officials what they’d witnessed.
Arthur’s snowmobile had crashed through the ice.
His father, trailing by about 250 feet, was able to turn his snowmobile toward thicker ice, but then his machine broke through as well.
. . .
Morse dispatched two officers on snowmobiles across the ice toward The Broads. It was a little over 5 miles as the crow flies, but they would need to take a circuitous route to avoid dangerous ice. At Tuftonboro Fire and Rescue, crews had just gotten back to the station with the air boat on the trailer when the call came in. They went back out, speeding south to a dock near the Libby Museum in Wolfeboro, where they could launch and go southwest, straight across The Broads.
Alton Fire and Rescue, near the very southern tip of the lake, dispatched its own snowmobiles, and they raced north across the ice to the tip of Rattlesnake Island.
As rescuers converged from all around the lake, witnesses watched the teenage boy get onto the ice on his hands and knees and then crash through to the water again. They watched for five or 10 minutes as the boy tried again and again. Then he disappeared from view.
The Alton snowmobiles were the first to arrive at the scene, and almost immediately they spotted Arnaud Remy, who was in the water, holding tenuously to an ice shelf.
Alton firefighters got as close to Arnaud as they could, and were able to throw ropes to secure him and keep him from drowning as the Tuftonboro air boat made the 10-minute journey across The Broads to his location.
The air boat arrived, and crews got Arnaud into the boat. He was very cold but otherwise OK. They were able to follow his son’s snowmobile tracks to where he’d crashed through the ice, but Arthur was nowhere to be seen.
. . .
In Moultonborough, Fish and Game crews located the body of David Crosier in 21 feet of water. He was 67 years old.
For a long while, they struggled to get hold of him with the robotic arm on the remote-controlled submarine, and the stress was getting to everyone as they began to consider putting a diver into the dangerous water. Finally, they were able to jury-rig a hook onto the robotic arm, snag a piece of his clothing, and pull him to the surface.
Night was coming fast, as was a blizzard, and there was still no sign of Arthur Remy.
Arnaud Remy had been transported to a local hospital, where Fish and Game officers interviewed the grief-stricken father.
Arthur’s obituary would later describe him as “a New Englander at heart,” whose greatest passion was the outdoors. He loved fishing and hunting and archery and sailing, and had launched a community service project to introduce underprivileged children to the outdoors.
No one wanted to leave the boy at the bottom of the lake all night, but Jordan made the painful decision to call off the search. Conditions were getting too dangerous. The rescue crews were exhausted physically and emotionally. And there was still the chance of more accidents to come. Many people had been drinking all day, Jordan knew, and there was a possibility that some might decide to take a midnight cruise on the lake.
And indeed, in the middle of the night on neighboring Lake Winnisquam, Fish and Game officers would have to rescue another snowmobiler who went through the ice. The man got out of the water safely but got turned around in the blizzard and couldn’t find his way to shore. He stayed the night in a bob house.
The following morning at 9:30, the deadliest day in the history of Lake Winnipesaukee finally came to an end when the remote-controlled submarine found Arthur Remy’s body in 73 feet of water.
. . .
A few days later, Colonel Jordan was sitting in his office at Fish and Game headquarters in Concord, getting ready to head out the door to the state Legislature to request more funding, more officers. There are only 32 now to cover the entire state. He had been impressed with the new governor’s concern about the lake fatalities and was optimistic that could lead somewhere.
The stress of the weekend, Jordan said, was still filtering out of him, out of everyone, and he had been doing his best to reach out to his officers. “There is no person who wasn’t affected by what happened that day,” Jordan said. “It is incredibly stressful to pull bodies out of the lake for two straight days, then go home to your kids, to your 15-year-old, and try to live with it. You have to address that stuff. When you repeatedly expose an officer to those types of things, you’re going to lose them.”
It had already been a tough winter, which started poorly on Christmas Eve, when 26-year-old Jack Holden of Massachusetts went missing in the White Mountains.
Lieutenant Morse was part of the team that found his body the following night near the summit of Bondcliff. It was too cold and dark to attempt to get him down that night, so Morse and the other officers spent Christmas night camped out next to his body.
Jordan said he was hoping to talk to more of the officers who worked that day on the lake, but that would have to wait. They were asleep.
The previous night, he’d sent many of them, including Morse, on an all-night rescue on Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains.
It took the officers seven hours to snowshoe up to a Canadian hiker, who was near death when they found him. They built a fire to warm the man up, then brought him down safely. They also rescued his two dogs.
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
Because of a reporting error, a story about the deaths of three snowmobilers on Lake Winnipesaukee gave conflicting ages for Mark O’Connell, one of the victims. He was 62.