MECHANIC FALLS — An Oakland teen was killed and 22 other people were injured, some seriously, in an accident during a haunted hayride at the Harvest Hill Farms “Gauntlet” on Saturday night.
Cassidy Charette, 17, was with several other students from Messalonskee High School, including the most seriously injured teen, 16-year-old Connor Garland from Belgrade.
According to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland, Charette died overnight at Central Maine Medical Center and Garland is now being treated at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The teens and 21 other people were in a hay wagon being pulled by a modified Jeep being driven by David Brown, 54, of Paris. According to Sgt. Joel Davis of the Fire Marshal’s Office, the vehicles were “on a designated path for the ride” when there was a mechanical issue with the Jeep. It was not able to stop on what Davis called a “very steep” downhill, and the vehicle hit and knocked over a tree.
The Jeep and wagon were “moving very fast” at the time of impact, he said, apparently “unable to stop” and the crash “threw everybody off the trailer and into the trees.”
Brown, who has worked at the park for about 10 years, has a commercial driver’s license and Harvest Hill Farms spokesman Scott Lansley called him a very experienced driver. Brown sustained a neck injury in the crash and was airlifted to Central Maine Medical Center.
Davis said this is the first fatal commercial hayride accident in Maine history, which prompted the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office to ask fire marshals to facilitate the investigation.
According to Lansley, park owner Peter Bolduc has operated the Gauntlet hayride for the last five years without incident.
Another employee who was on the wagon narrating the ride was also injured. She is expected to be released from CMMC Sunday afternoon.
According to Davis, the accident was reported about 8:30 p.m. and rescue units — including 12 ambulances and 2 LifeFlight helicopters — rushed to the accident scene more than one-quarter of a mile into the woods along a narrow trail that included several covered bridges.
“It was quite a job just trying to negotiate the ambulances inside that area,” Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.
The accident occurred during the part of the ride known as the haunted Frankenstein’s house, he said. That’s where the jeep typically slows on the downhill.
When first responders arrived, they found the hay wagon – a flatbed trailer loaded with hay bales– had jackknifed while going downhill and trying to round a curve. The riders had a variety of injuries, according to Davis, including broken legs, arms, head injuries, a broken back and multiple cuts and scrapes.
According to Lansley, there was a lot of confusion at the scene with so many injuries. There were between 500 and 600 people in the park at the time of the accident, Lansley said, waiting to board one of five haunted hay rides. Three of the wagons were at the start, and another had already left for the trail when the accident was reported. Those riders were stopped and escorted by foot back to the start, and the park was evacuated.
Most of the hay wagons are pulled by tractors, but the park also uses modified vehicles, like the Jeep involved in this accident, to pull the wagons. According to Davis, investigators are looking at whether the combined weight of the wagon and the people aboard may have been connected to the Jeep’s mechanical failure. He was not sure of the model year of the Jeep, but estimated it in the 1990s.
Investigators expect to be at the scene for much of Sunday and the Jeep and wagon were moved into a barn at the property for inspection. Police spent the day interviewing employees, including some of the actors who were stationed along the hayride route, Sunday. They were also interviewing the injured, who Davis said range in age from 10 to 50 years.
Also during the day Sunday, park employees were offered counseling.
“It’s a tragedy for the community,” Lansley said. “We’re a family here,” he said of park owner and employees.
The Bolduc family closed the park Sunday and has not yet decided when to re-open, Lansley said. They issued a statement by Facebook that “Our thoughts and prayers are with the injured and their families.”
Fifteen patients, including 12 brought by ambulance, were seen at CMMC in Lewiston, according to Chuck Gill, vice president for public affairs. Seven others were taken to St. Mary’s hospital in Lewiston; one person was flown to Maine Medical Center in Portland.
When the call came in, Gill said, the CMMC emergency room was already pretty busy and staff instituted a trauma code to bring in additional nurse managers and other staff. The staff that was already working were held after shift to help with the patient load, he said.
As of Sunday morning, the 7 patients who were treated in the CMMC ER had been released. Two other people were admitted and listed in stable condition. Their names have not yet been released.
All of the patients treated at St. Mary’s have been released.
According to McCausland, fire marshals license mechanical amusement rides in Maine, “however the hay ride did not require such licensing.”
The Gauntlet, which offers haunted hayrides on Friday and Saturday nights, opened for the season on Oct. 3. Rides started at dark, with the last ride going out at 11 p.m., according to the Harvest Hill Farms website.