Kerrie Molloy and John Candela visited Bar Harbor last month to unwind after working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, but the longtime nurses instead faced a new crisis in a horrifying Acadia hiking accident while descending Pemetic Mountain.
Molloy suffered three broken ribs, a punctured lung and fractured bones when she said she slipped on gravel and tumbled over rocks and boulders for about 15 to 20 feet down a precipitous section of the Pemetic Northwest Trail in the early afternoon on July 25. After summiting Pemetic, the two experienced hikers were close to finishing their first-ever hike in Acadia National Park. Just about 0.3 mile from the Park Loop Road, Molloy said she was surprised by the treacherous terrain on that section of the trail.
“I was terrified as I fell…. I kept rolling, wondering when I was going to stop,” Molloy said in a phone interview while recuperating at her Staten Island home.
Molloy, a nurse practitioner in urgent care for Advantage Care Physicians in New York, stressed that she is grateful for the “amazing” work of volunteers with MDI Search & Rescue in carrying her safely off the mountain after completing a rope-and-pulley rescue, responders from the Bar Harbor Fire Department and the chief surgeon at Mount Desert Island Hospital. Molloy said it’s the first time in her more than 30 years in nursing that she found herself on the other side of the table in the operating room.
Candela, who lives with Molloy in a longstanding relationship, said he was hiking a little in front of Molloy and scoping out the steep section of trail for a safe way down when he heard her scream. He said he did not see her slip but he watched in fear as she bounced and hit rocks before landing on a ledge against the exposed roots and dirt at the base of a fallen tree.
“I was in shock,” said Candela, who was carrying a backpack with food and water for the both of them. “I was afraid for her because I could see that she was getting seriously hurt as she was falling.”
Hiking poles no help during Acadia hiking accident
The pitch was so sharp on the trail that Molloy could have fallen farther and been even more seriously injured or killed, if not for the dead tree that stopped her descent, Candela said.
Candela, a registered nurse at Nassau University Medical Center on Long Island, including 20 years in a Level I trauma center, ran down to Molloy and said he struggled to check his emotions when he assessed her injuries. He said he knew for sure they needed a rescue when she tried to stand and collapsed in agony, and he called 911.
At the time of her frightening fall, Molloy was wearing hiking shoes and using two hiking poles that went flying during the Acadia hiking accident.
Her injuries included three broken posterior ribs, including two that were displaced, and punctured lung. She also fractured her right index finger and right ankle on the fibula, and suffered bloody facial cuts and many bruises and other cuts and scrapes.
The pain in her back from her broken ribs was so intense, she didn’t realize she had some of the other injuries, she said.
New York nurses were seeking a break from COVID-19
Candela said the two chose Acadia National Park for a hiking and biking trip partly because Maine exempted New York residents from having to quarantine or test negative for the coronavirus. New York also does not restrict travelers from Maine, so they did not have to quarantine on return.
“We wanted to go some place where we did not have to worry about COVID,” said Candela, who worked in the emergency room throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in New York.
More than 32,000 people have died from the virus in New York including more than 23,000 in New York City. New York has made a dramatic improvement with a positive test rate of less than 1 percent.
“I saw so much death and dying and sick people,” Candela said. “I hope I never have to go through that again. I was afraid to come home, afraid I was going to get sick and I was afraid I would possibly spread it to my loved ones. It was a very scary situation.”
The Acadia hiking accident became a new ordeal to endure. In the first few days after the incident, Candela said Molloy’s fall was kind of seared into his head, almost to the point where it was a post-traumatic type of stress.
“It was a horrible thing to watch, to see that happening,” Candela said. “I felt helpless, like I could not do anything.”
Rope-and-pulley system used in Acadia hiking accident
An Acadia National Park ranger arrived first on the scene. Next were two paramedics from the Bar Harbor Fire Department, who gave Molloy medication for pain and hooked her up to an IV to help stabilize her, Candela said.
The ranger called MDI Search & Rescue, and 10 members responded from the all-volunteer group, which includes a wide range of people such as doctors, nurses, teachers, fisheries researchers and staff at the Jackson Laboratory.
The search-and-rescue team set up a standard two-rope lowering system, with the ropes anchored to trees. They first used the system to slide a 40-pound litter to Molloy, and then they put her in the stretcher, connected her to the system and then lowered the litter down 10 to 15 feet to more level ground, said Steve Hudson of Southwest Harbor, a senior instructor with the team and a carpenter. With six people at a time holding the litter, Molloy was carried out to the Park Loop Road to a waiting ambulance.
Molloy said she was astonished by the rescue team’s execution.
“It was very well organized and very precise,” Molloy said. “Everybody had their job and everybody knew how to do it…. Everybody was just amazing in their precision.… It took them 3 hours to get me out, but they got me out and they were amazing.”
Most of the time injured hikers are carried out, Hudson said. The team only does about three rope rescues a year, having already done two others this year in April and June to rescue people who fell off the Cooksey Drive Overlook, he said.
Injured hiker terrified on arrival at Mount Desert Island Hospital
As of Aug. 13, Acadia National Park had called the search and rescue team to respond 14 times so far in 2020 and Hudson estimated that most have been for hiking accidents.
At Mount Desert Island Hospital, Molloy said she was scared.
Dr. Charlie Hendricks, chief of surgery, told Molloy that he needed to place a chest tube in her to inflate her damaged lung, and it was a procedure she said she always dreaded during her 16 years as an ER nurse.
“He said, ‘I have to put a tube into your chest’,” she said. “I said to him, with a very straight face, ‘I don’t want one of those tubes.…’ He looked at me and said, ‘But you need it.’ And I said, ‘Not without a lot of drugs’.”
She wrote thank-you letters to the search-and-rescue team and Hendricks. She praised the chief surgeon, saying he was calm under pressure.
“I don’t know you, but your visits, your explanations, your reassurances lead me to believe you are a wonderful person and a credit to the medical profession,” she wrote in the letter to Hendricks.
Hendricks told her she would heal without any further procedures, she said. That is good advice coming from a surgeon who has likely treated many people over the years who have fractured and broken bones in Acadia hiking accidents, she said.
She said she followed up with a thoracic surgeon in New York who advised another operation with titanium plates, but she said she is feeling better every day and plans to do without the additional surgery on her ribs.
Fall may have been a freak accident for experienced hiker
Molloy said her fall may have been a freak Acadia hiking accident. She and Candela are experienced hikers, with prior trips to mountains such as those in northern Italy, Madeira Island, which is part of Portugal, and in New York.
“It wasn’t like…I wasn’t careful,” she said.” I just stepped in the wrong place and I went right down.”
After arriving on Thursday, July 23, the couple drove to the peak of Cadillac and then biked the next day. On Saturday, Candela said, they parked their car at Jordan Pond for the trek to the peak of 1,248-foot Pemetic. They hiked up a more gradual trail and enjoyed some snacks and panoramic views on a sunny day atop Acadia’s fourth highest summit.
In hindsight, Molloy said, it could have been helpful to buy a reliable hiking book that might have provided more detailed information on the trails. She said she did not expect an area on the Pemetic Northwest Trail that was precipitous and technical with a newer hand rail erected just ahead of where she slipped.
Candela said they read about the loop hike to Pemetic Mountain on the internet with an article rating the trip “somewhere in the middle” between easy and difficult.
Aiming to improve safety, Molloy said she had purchased hiking poles and discovered on prior hikes that they assisted in balance and keeping her steady.
“Obviously, it did not help that much this time.”
Molloy said her first visit to Acadia may be her last. The drive to Acadia from their home on Staten Island is between 8 and 10 hours and it was “a hard trip back home” after she was discharged from the hospital on Friday, July 24, following her week-long hospitalization, she said.
Molloy said she might hike again, but she will be selective about the trails.
“I would probably start with some ‘baby hikes,’ something that I know is easier, where you can see pretty things but not too technical or not too high,” she said. “I definitely do not want to go through something like this again.”
Rescues in Acadia National Park rise in recent year
Hudson, who joined the search and rescue team in 1987, said he is always very understanding of people who hurt themselves in an Acadia hiking accident since he has come close himself a couple of times during his hikes.
“It’s hiking around the island,” Hudson said. “I am always aware of where I am hiking and what it means. Frequently, you can be surprised by something that does not look that bad.… I have rescued enough people that I realize that you have to be more careful than you think sometimes.”
Acadia hiking accidents are not counted separately by the park, but total rescues jumped between 2018 and 2019. There were 36 total rescues, including searches, water or land rescues, in 2018 and 40 in 2019, up 11 percent. Total rescues are only slightly lower in 2020 than the prior two years for the time period Jan. 1 to Aug. 12, according to Christie Anastasia, media relations specialist for the park.