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Mechanical malfunction cited in hayride accident that killed one, injured 22

BY LESLIE BRIDGERS
Cassidy Charette, 17, of Oakland died from her injuries and her boyfriend, Connor Garland, 16, of Belgrade, is in fair condition at Boston Children's Hospital.

MECHANIC FALLS - A mechanical malfunction caused the Jeep towing a trailer of passengers on a haunted hayride in Mechanic Falls to careen down a steep hill and crash Saturday night, killing a 17-year-old girl and injuring 22 others, state officials said Sunday.

The State Fire Marshal's Office and Maine State Police are still trying to determine exactly what prevented the 1979 Jeep CJ5 from being able to stop, but it was likely a problem with the brakes, said Sgt. Joel Davis of the fire marshal's office.

Davis said all 22 passengers and the driver were thrown when they crashed into a tree around 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Harvest Hill Farms on Route 26.

"The Jeep could not stop going down the hill," Davis said.

Cassidy Charette of Oakland, a member of the soccer team at Messalonskee High School, was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and died Saturday night. Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Charette suffered head injuries. The state medical examiner's office said no autopsy is planned on her body.

About a half-dozen of those injured remained hospitalized Sunday afternoon but their injuries did not appear life-threatening, Davis told The Associated Press.

Charette's boyfriend, Connor Garland, 16, of Belgrade, a junior baseball player at Messalonskee, was transferred to Boston Children's Hospital, where he was awaiting jaw surgery Sunday. McCausland said Garland suffered multiple fractures. A hospital spokeswoman listed Garland's condition as fair Sunday night.

The driver, 54-year-old David Brown of South Paris, underwent surgery late Saturday for substantial injuries and was released Sunday from CMMC. The hayride's narrator, a young woman, was in stable condition at CMMC. Davis wouldn't release her name because of the ongoing investigation.

Another female was in fair condition at Maine Medical Center in Portland, a hospital official said Sunday.

"In my 15 years with the fire marshal's office, I haven't seen anything that compares with this type of accident," said State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas.

Investigators from the fire marshal's office were at the site of the accident Sunday interviewing witnesses and passengers, while state police were inspecting the trailer and Jeep. State police were also calculating every passenger's weight to determine if the wagon was overloaded, Davis said.

Davis said Brown was tested for alcohol, as is standard in all fatal accidents, but results won't be available for days or weeks. The investigation is not currently considered criminal.

Scott Lansley, a spokesman for the farm, said Brown is an experienced truck driver and has been working there for three years.

"It's not somebody we found just off the road," he said.

A 10-year driver history for Brown is clean aside from an accident in April, in which he hit a stopped car that he apparently didn't see when attempting to back a cargo van down a street in Winthrop. The van was owned by Security Shredding, whose website lists its contact person as Peter Bolduc, who is also the owner of Harvest Hill Farms.

The Gauntlet Haunted Night Ride has run on Fridays and Saturdays through October, from dark until 11 p.m. for the past five years without incident, said Lansley. A 10-foot caged monster statue stands at the entrance to the haunted attraction.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the family," Lansley told the AP. "We're a tight community. This is really a tragedy for us."

Haunted hayrides typically take passengers, most often at night, through wooded areas or fields where "actors" dressed as vampires, witches, ghouls and other types of Halloween creatures wait in hiding in an attempt to frighten the riders.

There were about 500 visitors at the farm Saturday night when the accident occurred, and six hayride trailers with six different drivers were working, Lansley said. The entire park was evacuated after the incident, the AP reported.

Twelve ambulances and two LifeFlight helicopters responded to the scene Saturday night and transported the injured passengers and hayride employees to CMMC, St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston and Maine Medical Center. Most of them were treated and released that night.

Bolduc was visibly emotional as he made a statement to the news media at the farm on Sunday.

"I can't imagine the grief the families are feeling right now," he said. "For the remainder of the season we are suspending activities at the Gauntlet."

The farm was closed Sunday because of the investigation and canceled the hayrides "out of respect for the families," its website said. Its daytime family-oriented activity venue, Pumpkin Land, was scheduled to open Monday at 11 a.m.

Harvest Hill Farms, at 125 Pigeon Hill Road, bills itself as "New England's Premier Agritainment Destination," featuring a corn maze, super-sized slingshots and pick-your-own pumpkins.

Timothy E. Zerillo has been included in every edition of New England Super Lawyers since 2010, for his Super Lawyers page, go to http://www.superlawyers.com/maine/lawyer/Timothy-E-Zerillo/ab011be9-fc96-44e9-ad28-3956da48c1b4.html

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