APPLETON— Appleton is digging in for a protracted ordeal of cemetery storm cleanup and the daunting task of locating next of kin for badly damaged old tombstones.

A portion of Pine Grove Cemetery in the early morning hours of Nov. 30 was slashed by a severe windstorm carrying gusts in excess of 58 mph, according to the National Weather Service. It toppled and splinted towering pines that crashed onto scores of grave sites. Tombstones, some dating to the early 1800s, were toppled, cracked, or crushed under the weight of twisted limbs and an estimated four massive tree trunks.

“A lot happened very quickly…at this time it is not safe,” Select Board Chair Lorie Costigan reported at the board’s Dec. 6 meeting. “There is a lot of work to be done out there,” she added. Although the exact figure will not be known till the debris is cleared, Costigan said 18 to 24 headstones were damaged in some way “if not completely destroyed.” The approximately 20 percent of the cemetery that was impacted remains off limits to the public and has been cordoned off with emergency tape. It might take as much as a month to clear away the debris, the board learned.

 

Select Board member Scott Esancy warned of the lingering danger from damaged trees. Photo by Jack M. Foley

 Indeed, chief among the board’s concerns was keeping people out of the impacted area to the left off the entrance drive off Sennebec Road; several members implored the public to stay away because of the danger posed by an unstable tree canopy where it is suspected there are more damaged limbs or trunks that have not yet fallen.

“It’s a horrific mess that is hazardous,” Costigan said.

Board member Scott Esancy urged that people be discouraged from entering the area, noting “there are a lot of curious people and a lot have relatives buried” in the damage area; “It’s just a very dangerous spot right now,” he warned, adding, “I just want to make sure people understand.”

Esancy volunteered, along with Marci Blakely, to begin the process of finding and contacting deed holders and descendants of those whose gravestones were damaged because the town is not in all cases responsible for making repairs. Nor does Appleton’s insurance cover such damage, Esancy reported after speaking with the carrier.

“Contacting descendants who should know (what happened) is going to be a bit of a process,” he added.

Costigan called for a community effort to deal with the crisis and noted that some parts of the cemetery damage area date back to when Appleton still was part of Hope.

She also suggested that the timber might be valuable and could be harvested. However, colleague Charles Garrigan indicated that such trees are typically not millable because mill owners fear the presence of metal, such as nails. In any case, all other considerations were set aside for now in favor of unanimous support for getting the immediate cleanup effort underway to identify all the damaged graves and eliminate the dangers.

On Friday, Dec. 9, the town issued a bid document to start the work, according to Costigan. Garrigan suggested cleanup will require specialized equipment and tree climbers. The cost is expected to far exceed the $6,000 in supplementary cemetery maintenance funds that had been set aside prior to the storm, several board members indicated.

 

The total number of damaged or destroyed headstones is still unknown. Photo by Jack M. Foley

The town forester assessed the damage and reported that many trees in addition to those damaged by the storm should be taken down because they are diseased, Costigan reported.

Faced with the possibility of losing many of its namesake trees, Esancy said, “It’s still (going to be) Pine Gove if we leave trees on the perimeter.”