November 18, 2019

St. Francis drowning victim found by diver > Community offers support to mourning family

ST. FRANCIS — Almost 10 days after a boating accident took the life of a young man from St. Francis, a Maine Warden Service diver found the man’s body Tuesday afternoon in a channel along the back side of an island in the St. John River.

“Thank God. I was hoping we would find him soon,” said Gerald Jandreau, the former brother-in-law of the dead man, Randy Taggett.

Jandreau was among two dozen volunteers who searched the spring-gorged waters of the St. Francis and St. John rivers for the last 10 days.

Taggett’s body traveled about 2 1/2 miles from where the boating accident occurred at about 4:30 p.m. May 3 in the St. Francis River. The body was found at the bottom of a V-channel in a narrow area of calm water 8 to 10 feet deep along the back side of a section of Jones Island.

Maine Warden Service diver Roland Tilton was the last of nine divers still in the water Tuesday afternoon. Other divers were waiting to regroup at a rendezvous site at the G.C. Hartt boat landing when Tilton made the discovery.

Tilton was a few hundred feet from the end of the channel when he found the body.

Randy Taggett, 34, and Frank Taggett, 29, had traveled by boat from St. Francis, on the St. John River, up the St. Francis River to Glacier Lake the afternoon of May 3. They were on their way home when their boat, which Randy Taggett had bought the previous day, struck a yellow birch tree hanging over the water from the northwest shore of the river.

The current overturned the 14-foot aluminum boat, dumping both men in the near-freezing water. Frank Taggett made it to shore and summoned help.

Several searches were started, but all that was found until Tuesday was the boat and the life jackets neither man was wearing.

Game wardens and police stopped searching a week ago, but volunteers never gave up the search.

“The volunteers were diligent. They did one heck of a job. They’ve been right there all along,” said warden Sgt. Brian Gray, who was in charge of the search.

From the time game warden divers were off the river, river cruises and air searches were continued by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“We’re very pleased we were able to get the body back. I’m happy with the way it turned out,” said Gray.

Within half an hour of the discovery and before the body was taken to shore at Hartt’s landing, dozens of people, relatives and neighbors of the large, extended family of Jandreaus and Taggetts were at the landing to offer support. Word about the discovery flew through the small community.

It was the third day divers were in the two rivers looking for Taggett. They returned Tuesday morning after not searching for a week because the water had dropped about 5 feet since their last attempts a week ago.

It was a trying day for members of the diving team. Leaving from Hartt’s landing at 9:30 a.m., the divers divided into two groups to search the St. Francis River. One group started at the confluence of the St. Francis and St. John rivers, while the other group started where the Taggett boat overturned, about two miles north on the St. Francis River.

On the way by boat to the accident site about 800 feet downstream, Gerald Jandreau indicated where two crosses had been attached to a tree, the last place Frank Taggett saw his brother after the accident.

“It’s us that put those there,” said Jandreau, as he and a game warden approached the site.

Just a short distance upstream, wardens tied up their boat and started the strenuous search. Three game wardens and volunteers held a diver in the strong current with a safety rope wrapped around a spruce tree at the accident site.

The site was abandoned about a half-hour later because of the current, which pulled masks and mouthpieces from the diver’s face as he attempted to make his way through the water. One warden said that because of the current’s strength, the rope cut a 1 1/2-inch gash in the spruce tree by the time the wardens and volunteers were able to get the diver out.

It was a tedious process for divers, searching channels and eddies 10 and 20 feet a time while tied to safety ropes in most places. The water was dark, fast and colored by brown sediment from the spring runoff. It was hard for safety crews to hear each other above the din of rapids in some places.

Jandreau, a lookout on a game warden boat watching for divers, told how he and volunteers had cut trees extending into the water, places where a body could cling and hide, during their 10-day search.

The divers went all the way to the confluence of the St. John and St. Francis rivers. Returning upriver into the St. Francis, warden Sibley was told that the diver, Tilton, was coming down the St. Francis. The game wardens watched as Tilton turned from the main channel of the river into the channel at the rear of Jones Island. An orange laundry detergent bottle tied to the diver floated in the river to mark his spot while a game warden boat followed him.

Others divers and wardens left, heading for the rendezvous point at Hartt’s landing for some rest after they had been in the water for nearly four hours. Sibley turned into the St. John and waited at the far end of the channel at the rear of Jones Island for Tilton and his safety boat.

As Tilton neared the end of the channel, a warden in the safety boat raised his arm as a signal for assistance.

Approaching, Sibley said, “They have something.”

Jandreau’s eyes filled. Looking over, he saw the body of his friend being lifted from the river. After a minute, Jandreau spoke, referring to the local practice of burying those who died during the winter in the springtime.

“Randy waited until those who died this winter were buried,” he said. “They did that yesterday and today.”

Jandreau sat on the edge of the boat, his rosary clutched in his right hand.

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