HARPSWELL, Maine (TNS) — The small public beach nestled into Mackerel Cove would usually be full on a hot summer day, but it was mostly empty Tuesday after a New York City woman was killed in the first fatal shark attack in recorded Maine history.
State officials said Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, was killed while swimming on Monday with her daughter in Mackerel Cove by a great white shark, a conclusion they made by examining part of a tooth that was left behind. She was pronounced dead after being pulled to the shore by two people in a tandem kayak.
For Art Howe, fire administrator and emergency management agent for Harpswell, which has more than 200 miles of craggy coastline across three major islands and more than 200 smaller ones, it only took five minutes to realize the Monday afternoon call for two distressed swimmers in Harpswell’s Mackerel Bay would be nothing like he had ever responded to before.
“We knew very quickly there would be no resuscitative measures that were going to work” once rescuers arrived at the scene, Howe said.
The response shows the uniqueness of the fatal attack. The town’s three fire departments only saw 753 calls in 2018, according to town records, with only 12 involving the water. Howe said there is no written protocol for a shark attack, but personnel are used to calls of drifting boats overcome by tides.
Most of those calls occur between May and September, when the town’s tourism and second-home population swells, Howe said. The town has a few local beaches, but many tend to swim off the coast. The shore of Elden Point Road, where Holowach and her husband co-owned a home, sits above the water and is lined with rocks and seaweed.
The ground drops quickly into deeper water, and it is not uncommon for boats to pull up to shore. On Monday, two people renting a nearby home noticed Holowach in distress and jumped in a kayak to rescue her, according to Jeff Cooper, who runs H2Outfitters in Harpswell and rented the kayak to them.
Cooper said shark encounters have happened during guided tours in more southern areas, but he was not sure if he could have done the same thing as the kayakers. One was identified by the Portland Press Herald as Charlie Wemyss-Dunn of Boston.
“The way they told it to me, they felt like they had to do something,” he said.
Cathy Piffath, Cooper’s partner and a rescue captain with the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department, was on Orr’s Island teaching a safety class when she heard the sirens. She did not learn what had happened until later. Like many locals, she is still processing the incident.
“I think the viciousness of the incident, to physically see the results of that for those who were first on the scene, was hard,” she said, “especially because it was a mother and daughter in the water. It made me think about if it was my mom, how would I feel.”
Cooper said he quickly went over to Cedar Beach, one of the local swimming spots, to warn people to get out of the water. The company has since pulled kayak rentals and is reworking children’s programming to focus more on shell hunting and tidal pool exploration. He said it “would be irresponsible to let people go out in conditions like this.”
While swimming has been restricted at two nearby state parks, town beaches remain open. The town is discussing putting out signs asking people to swim in pairs, to be wary in water higher than the waist and avoid areas that have attracted wildlife like seals, but Howe said locals “deserve some freedom.”
On Tuesday afternoon, three teenagers from Dresden were jumping into the ocean off the Cribstone Bridge between Bailey and Orr’s Island. They had heard of the attack, but they were not afraid.
“We’ve been swimming in the ocean around here our whole life and we’ve never seen a shark,” said 14-year-old Madeline Kallin.
Veteran fisherman George Coffin was more hesitant. He has seen small sharks off the coast and never a great white, but he once saw a chewed whale carcass that he believes to be evidence of their presence in deeper waters. He said the incident “probably changed the town forever” and that he was not sure he would want his grandchildren swimming there now.
“I know they say it’s an odd, strange, one-in-a-million thing, but if it happens once, it can happen again,” he said. “Who wants to let their grandchildren swim after something like that?”
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