Legacy of a landslide

A look back at the events and aftermath of April 16, 1996, on Samoset Road
By Daniel Dunkle | Jan 07, 2020
Courtesy of: Stephen Morrison, PDQ Photo An aerial view of Rockland's Samoset Road shows the devastation caused when a landslide eroded more than 600 feet of shoreline April 16, 1996.

Rockland — It has been 20 years since a landslide in the early morning hours of April 16, 1996, destroyed two homes and sent rubble into the harbor along Samoset Road, but Dorothy Collins, who lived right next door to the devastation, still looks out her window first thing every morning.

"I look out that window in the morning just to make sure nothing has changed," she said.

Samoset Road was a tight-knit and affluent neighborhood in the city, home to business owners and lawyers and the path to the area's most exclusive resort destination for visitors. Many of the families in the neighborhood were close friends, their children having grown up together.

The landslide came without warning at a time when most were sleeping, a rapid erosion of about 600 feet of high bluff shoreline, resulting in the destruction of more than three acres.

Fortunately, there was no loss of life in this story, which catapulted Rockland into the state and national news, but the events surrounding the landslide had long-term consequences for those involved. And experts say, it could happen again.

It began when a loud noise woke Sue Gerrish.

Gerrish, now 84, and living in a home in Pen Bay Acres, said she still remembers it easily.

"I thought there was an automobile accident on my driveway," she said. "...I looked out the window and I don't see any sign of an accident, so I sat down on the bed trying to figure out what I heard, and what I don't see, when the bed shook."

"I thought OK, one of the trees in the back yard fell. So I went and I looked out the kitchen window and it was so dark I couldn't see the trees. So like an idiot, I went out on the deck."

The deck at this point was hanging over empty space and a long drop. She could not see this. All of the witnesses interviewed recall that it was a very dark night with low visibility. The magnitude of the event became clear gradually and only fully at sunrise.

"The smell was absolutely horrible," she said. "All that sludge that had rolled underneath the ground was coming out, so I saw what was happening and I couldn't see any of my trees."

She turned on all the lights in the house and tried to wake up her husband, Douglas Gerrish. Douglas and Sue Gerrish ran the locally famous Doug's Gift Shop, which used to be located at the Camden Street shopping center before Walmart came and went, and later moved downtown. Douglas Gerrish died April 7, 2013.

Douglas didn't want to be woken in the middle of the night and tried to tell his wife she was having a nightmare. She finally got him to go to the window looking out on the precarious deck.

"He looked out the window and he says, 'I don't see a damned thing!' and he was mad, and I opened up my mouth about the damned thing," Gerrish recalls. "And he went out and saved two old cars and left me in the house, shaking." At this part of her story, she laughs. "I needled him for years about that."

She called dispatch, which was then located at the Rockland Fire Department, and told them there was a landslide at 23 Samoset Road. It was 1:16 a.m.

Adam Miceli, who today serves as Rockland's acting fire chief, had just started with the department in December 1995. He was one of the firefighters on duty that night and remembers when the call came in.

Miceli said he was in bed when the buzzer went off and the lights came on. The dispatcher, John Holman, who was known for making even minor calls sound like the end of the world, was uncharacteristically calm.

"I don't know what you're going to do about this, but a lady has called and said she heard a loud boom and now her back yard is gone."

Miceli remembers coming out of bed, covers flying, in excitement over the call.

Mikial Mazzeo, who is today an assistant fire chief with the department, was among the first at the scene, and it was so dark that he could not see the extent of the landslide, which was not over yet. He was told they had to get Dorothy Smalley, 98, out of her house at 27 Samoset Road. He went and knocked on the door and tried to wake her up, but his efforts were not rewarded. At some point, someone told him to break in and get her out of the house. Firefighters always work to protect lives and property, so, as was the policy, he started looking for a way to break in that would do the least damage to the property.

Mazzeo said former Rockland Police Officer Bill Donnelly, who had seen that there was no ground left around the back of the house and that the home was about to fall into the ocean, then took the fire ax out of Mazzeo's hand and smashed in the front door in two hits. They went in and found Smalley in bed, "scared to death," and told her the situation. She cooperated, coming out of the home.

"I realized it was much more of a problem than I'd thought," Mazzeo said.

Within minutes, Smalley's home was a shattered wreck at the bottom of the pit, along with her car. The Gerrish family's garage and part of the house had broken off and collapsed as well.

Assistant Fire Chief David Vanorse arrived at the scene after the first wave of emergency responders called in for backup. He remembers walking up and looking over the edge and saying, "Oh boy, this is out of my league!"

He also remembers watching the landslide progress. At one point a tree on the edge began quivering and making a noise. He turned on the headlights of his truck and watched it slowly sink out of sight.

Then-Fire Chief Raymond Wooster said the area was extremely unstable and recalled watching trees suddenly disappearing into their lawns.

The situation was extremely frustrating for all involved. The firefighters had no way of knowing how far the rapid erosion of the coast would go and what was a safe distance at which to keep people and vehicles. Would it reach Samoset Road itself and crumble that infrastructure, taking with it a sewer line that served the area, including the Samoset Resort? Would other houses follow their neighbors' over the edge?

Rockland firefighters would remain on-scene continuously until May 10, a department record for one call.

With Smalley's home destroyed, the Gerrish home hanging on the edge of a precipice and part of the yard slid away from the neighboring property of William and Florence Eaton, Samoset Road became the epicenter of an unfolding human drama that included neighbors, rescue workers, visiting officials, members of the press and people who were merely curious. The police issued stern warnings against looting.

The Gerrishes wanted desperately to get back into their home to retrieve their possessions, including furniture, family photos and a baby grand piano with a lengthy family history. City officials could not allow that, because it was not safe. At one point a few firefighters entered the home for a matter of seconds to retrieve a few items.

For her part, Smalley was very upset over the loss of her black and white coon cat, Sally, who had not been seen since the landslide. Neighbors searched the area for the cat. On April 27, The Courier-Gazette reported that the cat had been found safe, meowing in a field adjacent to Smalley's property, apparently unable to figure out why its home had disappeared. The cat was rescued by Dorothy Collins' sister, Barbara Lebell, and was later reunited with a relieved Smalley.

Meanwhile, a conflict was growing between Sue Gerrish and the city over her desire to go back into her home. Firefighters and police could not allow her in because of safety concerns, but she describes returning to her home at one point because the door was open.

"The house was leaning because things were moving," she said. "The front door was open. Next to the front door I had a baby grand piano with my children's pictures on it, so I got into the house to get the pictures, but when I got into the house, my dining room was still standing. There were cracks in the ceiling."

Dishes and knickknacks were still standing on shelves, unbroken.

She said her attempts to get into the house led to confrontations with the police, and she recalls having police officers and family members angry with her over it.

Ten days and many discussions after the landslide, a massive salvage effort was launched. Art Henry Crane Service of Thomaston used two cranes in the effort. The roof of the Gerrish house was removed and employees Russell Elwell and Francis Landre were lowered in with a hanging cage to pull up heavy furniture, including the piano. With some of the weight off the cliff side of the house, others were allowed in to retrieve belongings.

Wooster recalled that the original plan was for the salvage crew to work from the crane-lowered platform to save what the family held most dear while maintaining safety by not trusting their fates to the unstable house.

"It never worked out that way," he said. "The salvage crew tired rapidly of working off this platform ... and began to just jump off the platform and harvest everything they could and eventually bring it out through the front door. And I guess part of me was elated that the property was being saved and part of me was scared to death that the whole house was going to go at any moment with the crane and these workers in it."

Before the piano was loaded onto the truck, Sue Gerrish played a few songs on it, right in the street, including "Goodnight, sweetheart."

Collins said among the many people who helped in the salvage effort were three men who had been staying at the Samoset as guests.

The neighborhood and many in the community rallied to be helpful. People gathered newspapers and used them to help pack dishes in the salvage effort.

Vanorse remembered Hazel Spear, who lived on Samoset Road, bringing the firefighters hot coffee and food. Smiling, he remembered her as "the nicest woman you ever want to meet."

Wooster said the city purchased the property and as soon as it was public property, he was asked to make the house disappear. The fire department carried out a controlled burn that brought a final end to the Gerrish home.

While it was fortunate no one was hurt, the event was a terrible loss for the Gerrish family. The insurance company, deeming this an "act of God," did not cover the loss of the house.

The couple moved into an apartment for a time before relocating to Pen Bay Acres. Gerrish recalls having suffered symptoms of depression.

"I don't know what it felt like, because when we got into the apartment at the motel, all I did was sleep," she said.

She said the loss also created stress that led to stomach problems for her.

She said people tried to help and many were very kind to her family. She cried when she recalled a woman bringing her a coat with a $100 bill in the pocket. Neighbors threw her a shower in which she received gifts of kitchen items to replace what she had lost.

Adas Yeshuron Synagogue and people from local churches made donations to help them get back on their feet.

She remembered workers who were rebuilding the slope coming over to her new home at 8 p.m. in the dark, drenched to the bone, to return a fragment of a badly damaged family picture to her. "They wanted me to see they tried," she said. "So many people were so kind and good, you have no idea."

But the financial damage of losing a home, one the couple had already paid off, with no return from insurance, was insurmountable. Sue and Doug were in their 60s and now faced with rebuilding their lives. Sue said she still struggles with her mortgage and skyrocketing property taxes.

They did not go down without a fight. The Gerrishes filed a lawsuit against the former owners of the Samoset Resort, claiming that when it put in a lake near its entrance, it did not retain the water properly and that water contributed to the landslide, according to a VillageSoup article from 2004. An attorney for the Samoset's former owners argued scientific evidence said the resort was not at fault.

It was reported in February 2004 that the Gerrishes had dropped the lawsuit.

"Those neighbors, no matter how they smile, they must have been scared stiff," Gerrish said.

Marine Geologist Stephen Dickson of the Maine Geological Survey said the threat remains to a good portion of the north shore of Rockland Harbor along Waldo Avenue and Samoset Road. The specific properties involved in this particular landslide have been remediated and the city now owns these parcels.

He said spring is the most common time for landslides along our coast, when the ground is saturated, but no longer frozen.

In the aftermath of the landslide, the Maine Geological Survey did a study of the area and suggested the city do a more in-depth study, which it did.

The study available online from the survey states that a number of factors contributed to the landslide, including "a high, steep-sloped bluff, a thick section of poorly drained clay, and a high water table."

Vanorse still has a core sample of the marine clay taken from Samoset Road after the landslide.

He noted that he grew up on Front Street and as a child remembers going sliding for fun on the marine clay of the shore. "When it gets wet, it's just like grease," he said. He also recalled seeing numerous small landslides growing up along the coast, though none that endangered lives and property like this one.

There are actions that can be taken to prevent landslides, or at least make them less likely, and some of the private owners of properties along that stretch have taken some of these steps.

A large-scale project would be extremely expensive and some are convinced erosion cannot be stopped entirely and eventually the ocean will retake land along its edges.

Code Enforcement Officer John Root said the city might have considered new zoning regulations that would prohibit building on land that is at a high risk for landslides, but that has not happened. He said he goes over the risks with developers when projects are proposed in the area.

Knox County Emergency Management Agency Director Ray Sisk said the agency is prepared to respond to future landslides. It has a written plan in place, an evacuation plan and better equipment for barricading roads to keep people away from the area of the landslides. Nothing can be done to stop a landslide once it starts, so keeping people out of the dangerous area is the priority. Both Sisk and Miceli say the system of communications for bringing multiple agencies into rapid response has improved in the past 20 years as well.

That said, Vanorse concluded his memory of the event saying what everyone involved feels most strongly: "I hope it never happens again."

Editor's Note: In addition to quotes from witnesses to these events, this story also relied on information from previously published stories from the archives of The Courier-Gazette and VillageSoup.

Courier Publications News Director Daniel Dunkle can be reached at ddunkle@villagesoup.com or 594-4401 ext. 122.

Rockland Police Lt. Michael Collins, left, and a videographer survey damage to the home of Sue and Douglas Gerrish on Samoset Road. (Source: File photo)
The splintered wreckage of Dorothy Smalley's house. (Source: File photo)
Sue Gerrish, 84, of Rockland, remembers the events surrounding the destruction of her home in a landslide on Samoset Road. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Little was left to support the porch and house owned by Sue and Douglas Gerrish on Samoset Road. (Source: File photo)
Not long after this picture was taken, the tree on the right collapsed into the pit. (Source: File photo)
An aerial view of Rockland's Samoset Road shows the devastation caused when a landslide eroded more than 600 feet of shoreline April 16, 1996. (Courtesy of: Stephen Morrison, PDQ Photo)
The piano belonging to Sue Gerrish sits on Samoset Road after being salvaged via a crane 10 days after the landslide. In the background at left, an expert can be seen watching the property closely using surveying equipment for any sign of movement during the salvage operation. (Courtesy of: Dorothy Collins)
The destroyed homes can be seen in this picture from Dorothy Collins' scrapbook. (Courtesy of: Dorothy Collins)
Heavy equipment is brought in for the cleanup effort. (Source: File photo)
Eventually, a controlled burn was used to remove the Gerrish home from the landslide site on Samoset Road. (Courtesy of: Dorothy Collins)
An aerial view of the work done to remediate the landslide site. (Courtesy of: Courtesy Stephen Morrison, PDQ Photo)
David Vanorse, who served as an assistant fire chief in the Rockland Fire Department at the time of the landslide, holds a core sample of marine clay taken from Samoset Road. The instability of the clay is believed to have played a role in causing the landslide. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Dorothy Collins of Samoset Road has collected numerous articles and photos surrounding the landslide event in a scrapbook at her home. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
The site of the landslide today. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
(Courtesy of: Stephen Morrison, PDQ Photo)
A dead tree on a patch of displaced sod taken in the past week shows the area around Samoset Road is still subject to erosion. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
The city had an in-depth study of the landslide area done by Gerber-Jacques Whitford consulting engineers and geologists. It contains this map, which shows Samoset Road on the right side and Waldo Avenue along the top. The areas marked in red were considered at the time of the study in 1997 high risk for landslides. Yellow is medium risk and black is low risk. The map also notes the locations of the 1996 slide, as well as a slide from 1973. (Photo by: Rockland City Hall)
Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jan 12, 2020 07:58

Littlefield  Memorial Baptist Church is to be commended for what they have done to stabilize their property.  Seems like they are the only ones who took the situation seriously.  We may not be as fortunate not to lose someone next time; because it will come.

Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Jan 11, 2020 18:27

Great story, Dan and a good reminder to all. I remember going there the next morning to look. I  wonder if there are areas that will become even more vulnerable to this due to sea level rise. Could it happen in Camden’s Harbor Park or Laite Beach I wonder?

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