SALISBURY — An estimated 700 mourners crowded into St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Middlebury Wednesday to remember three generations of the Flynn family who died Saturday after the snowmobiles they were driving broke through the ice on Lake Dunmore. That followed a wake at the American Legion Hall in Middlebury Tuesday night that was so crowded that some initially had to wait to get into the building.
Fr. William Beaudin delivered a message of consolation and hope as many in the community were recalling the circumstance of the tragedy and trying to pull any lessons from the calamity.
“The family has been questioning, and also very thoughtful, very faith-filled and positive, and very grateful to the community for all they’ve done,” Fr. Beaudin said. “They’ve been very inspiring.”
Kevin Flynn, 50, of Whiting, his 24-year-old daughter Carrie Flynn and his 3-year-old granddaughter Bryanna Popp of Brandon all died in the accident. Three other family members also involved the accident — Kevin Flynn’s wife, Terry, and their grandsons Jeremiah Popp, 6, and Aiden Decker , 4 — survived.
Vermont State Police said that around noon last Saturday three snowmobiles driven by Kevin Flynn, Carrie Flynn and Terry Flynn drove out onto Lake Dunmore near the public boat access off West Shore Road. Jeremiah Popp was riding with his grandfather, Bryanna Popp was with her aunt Carrie Flynn, and Aiden Decker was with his grandmother.
All three snowmobiles broke through the ice, though Terry Flynn managed to throw Decker from her sled before it entered the water. What followed was a harrowing tale in which dozens of first responders and common citizens teamed up to offer what aid they could.
Mickey Bartlett, his son-in-law Michael Healey and their families were preparing for lunch at Bartlett’s home on West Shore Road, a celebration of Bartlett’s birthday, when they saw four-year-old Decker wandering up from the boat launch area. Clearly something was wrong.
“The kid said, ‘Can you please take my helmet off,’” Healey recalled.
Bartlett said something clicked in his head and they swung into action. While Bartlett’s wife, Dorothea, called 911, he and Healey gathered what they could in the way of equipment — a roof rake and some long canvas straps — and headed to the lakeshore. Another neighbor saw what was going on and grabbed a ladder.
As Bartlett and Healey arrived at the shore, so too did Addison County Deputy Sheriff Oscar Gardner.
Several of those first on the scene said they could not agree on the exact sequence of events from this point onward, but what follows seems to be the clearest explanation.
After the snowmobilers were in the frigid water, Terry Flynn shouted to Aiden Decker to run off the ice and get help. Then she managed to pull herself out of the water by flopping her arms on the ice and letting her sleeves freeze to give her a grip — just as she had read in a magazine.
Apparently she was shouting encouragement to her daughter and granddaughter when Gardner and Bartlett got to her. Healey walked her to safety off the ice.
Gardner, with Bartlett’s straps tied to his ankles, crawled to a hole in the ice, pulled Bryanna Popp out of the water and performed CPR before taking her to shore, where an ambulance took her to Porter Hospital.
Unable to rescue Carrie Flynn, Bartlett, the neighbor with the ladder and Salisbury firefighter Foster Provencher, who had a few hundred feet of rope, advanced on the hole in the ice where Jeremiah Popp and Kevin Flynn were still in the water.
Bartlett said he heard Jeremiah Popp whimper.
“I was totally amazed,” he said.
The trio quickly conferred and the neighbor with the ladder, who asked that his name not be published, headed closer to the hole. When some of the ice gave way and he started to go into the water himself, one of his cohorts pulled him out. Then they reached the long roof rake, normally used to get snow off a roof, out toward Jeremiah.
“He still had enough in him to grab the rake and we pulled him up three or four inches, and his hand slipped,” the neighbor recounted. “That was not good, you normally only get one shot.
“But he didn’t slip back in. We got him out another three or four inches and he slipped … On the fourth try we got him out.
“He contributed in a large part to his own rescue,” the neighbor said. “I don’t know where he got the energy to get out.”
The trio, and another Salisbury firefighter on the other side of the hole, continued to try to rescue Kevin Flynn, but to no avail.
Bartlett said that when he got back to the shore Middlebury firefighters were on the scene. The fact that five people had already been in the water made it a dicey situation.
“It was a situation where we had to be very careful with the ice. We had three through and we didn’t want any more,” Middlebury Fire Chief told the Associated Press.
Police in wetsuits used a canoe and ropes to retrieve the bodies of Kevin and Carrie Flynn.
THICKNESS OF THE ICE
Officials don’t know how thick the Lake Dunmore ice was where the snowmobiles went in, but people in the area said there were tracks across the lake before the Flynns took to the ice.
Paul Quesnel, Kevin Flynn’s brother-in-law, told the Associated Press that Flynn had been riding snowmobiles since he was a child and that he had checked the ice thickness before driving onto the lake.
“They stopped on the shoreline before they went on the ice. He stopped and made sure it was solid. There were tracks there. Snowmobiles had been traveling across that,” Quesnel said.
A late winter combined with recent snowfall has left many lakes and ponds in northern New England with thin ice covered in snow, creating an illusion of solidity that may be contributing to a rash of snowmobiling accidents in recent weeks, officials say.
The snow insulates the ice from further hardening even if the weather gets very cold, and officials are renewing safety warnings about the hazards of snowmobiling on thin ice.
“It looks inviting and nice and solid, but there’s nothing there,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Bryant Watson, executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, said that his organization doesn’t endorse riding on frozen waters, but that posting signs to warn snowmobilers isn’t feasible.
“I don’t know how we or the state can work on the issue. You can’t post signs all the way around a body of water. You have to rely on the individual to make a good decision.
“In most instances, they need to check with local people. Were there fishermen who might’ve been able to tell them how thick the ice was? Could they have checked with someone to find out? If you see someone out there ice fishing with a vehicle, it probably means it’ll support a snowmobile. But that doesn’t mean the entire body of water will,” Watson said.
Snowmobilers often use frozen lakes and ponds to connect to trails, but the U.S. Coast Guard says there’s no such thing as safe ice when it comes to riding.
“Ice doesn’t form solidly through the entire lake,” said Boatswain’s Mate Christopher Zahn, at the Coast Guard station in Burlington. “While in some spots it may be 10 inches thick, weather or wind may make it 1 to 2 inches thick in another.”
MILD FALL, ICE CAME LATE
Mild weather in November and the first part of December delayed ice in some places, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Whittier. In Burlington, the average daily temperature in November was 41.8 degrees, or 4.7 degrees above normal.
“November was significantly warmer than normal, and that allowed for little, if any, ice. Temperatures got above freezing a couple days after Christmas, and then in late December, temperatures got to normal but then we got a foot or more of snow, and that added snowpack to a layer of ice that wasn’t that thick to begin with,” Whittier said.
Bartlett, for his part, thinks there should be signs warning snowmobiles off the lake, reminding snowmobilers of the variable thickness of the ice. He thinks it might have made a difference.
“These were nice people, this was a nice family. They wanted to take their grandkids out for some fun,” he said. “If they had seen a sign (warning about thin ice) maybe they wouldn’t have gone out there.”
Bartlett and the others who took part in the rescue have been trying to process what they have been through. A group met at Porter Hospital to ask questions of each other, vent and make sense of what they experienced.
Students at Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon, where Bryanna Popp was in the pre-kindergarten program and Jeremiah Popp is a kindergartener, were trying to come to grips with the tragedy this week. Counselor Laurie Cox talked to kindergarteners about the accident, and children asked questions they had, Principal Judy Pulsifer said. School officials called the parents of the pre-K children to inform them of what was going on and offer assistance as needed.
“I think (the kindergartners) understood best as they could,” Pulsifer said. “As adults it is hard sometimes for us to understand.
“These are children that were an important part of Neshobe School and they are missed,” Pulsifer said. “We expect Jeremiah to return and look forward to having him back.”
Fr. Beaudin said Mari Quesnel, Kevin Flynn’s sister, gave a touching eulogy at Wednesday’s funeral, and said the Quesnel, Flynn and Popp families are grieving. Indeed, in all his years of ministry he said this has been one of the more intense losses he has seen a family endure.
“One loss is bad enough,” he said. “When there are three deaths, that compounds it.”
Editor’s note: John Curran of the Associated Press contributed to this story.