PORTLAND – A rock slide that killed a 52-year-old hiker on Mount Katahdin was triggered when a large rock broke off of an outcropping and bounded down a steep trail, an official said Monday.

Baxter State Park Director Irvin “Buzz” Caverly Jr. said he examined dozens of photos to determine that the rock broke free from the top section of Cathedral Trail, which passes through a steep rock field and leads to the Katahdin summit.

The rock tumbled down the trail, where it struck other rocks and started a rock slide, Caverly said. A rock weighing an estimated 400 pounds landed on top of and killed 52-year-old Roger Cooper of Bangor when the rubble fell among Cooper and his hiking companions.

“It was just nature’s action that was unpredictable,” Caverly said. “They had no advance warning whatsoever. It just happened. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Cooper and three other men who graduated from Noble High School in North Berwick in 1971 were hiking the Cathedral Trail at about 1 p.m. Saturday when large rocks began falling from above without warning. The mile-high Katahdin is Maine’s highest peak and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.

Will Williams of Wells watched in horror as a rock landed on Cooper. Another friend was pinned by another boulder.

“I just looked up and these boulders were just coming … It’s just the worst nightmare you could ever think of, and there’s just the boulder that landed on him, just this massive boulder and I couldn’t move it,” Williams told the Portland Press Herald.

Cooper died within minutes, officials said. Another hiker, Stacey Hall, 51, of Somersworth, N.H., was pinned under a boulder but did not seek hospital treatment. Williams escaped injury along with Frank Atkins, 51, of Huntsville, Ala., who had hiked ahead of the other three.

State Geologist Robert Marvinney of the Maine Geological Survey said many Maine mountains are prone to rock slides because of the freeze-and-thaw process that repeats itself in the mountain fractures in winter and spring.

“When you look at the lower slopes of Katahdin, they’re covered with a veneer of fallen blocks,” Marvinney said. “A talus slope is what we call it – a slope made up of fallen rocks.”

Caverly said he could recall only two occasions when hikers had been killed by falling rocks on Katahdin.

In September 1995, a Massachusetts rock climber was killed by a falling rock while trying to shield two climbers below him from the rock. In February 1984, two men were killed in an avalanche at the base of Cathedral Trail.

“A rock slide is not an uncommon event,” Caverly said. “But it is uncommon for people to get caught in a slide.”

On Saturday, the hikers were making their way up Cathedral Trail even though the park had declared Class II conditions, meaning hiking above the timberline was not recommended. It was cloudy at the time, but not raining.

Cathedral Trail is above the timberline, but Caverly said the weather conditions appear to be unrelated to the incident.

After Saturday’s rock slide, about 60 people from the park staff and volunteer search-and-rescue teams worked to rescue the three survivors, who got off the mountain in darkness about 12:30 Sunday morning.

A Maine Army National Guard helicopter arrived about 11 a.m. Sunday and took Cooper’s body to Millinocket, which is near the park.

Rob Tice, a law enforcement ranger, took dozens of photographs to help in the investigation. Those photos, Caverly said, helped determine the cause of the rock slide.

AP-ES-06-28-04 1613EDT

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