Boaters survive encounter with dam

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Failing to see warning signs, a man drives a 24-foot Sea Ray over the 12-foot drop with two aboard

Failing to see warning signs, a man drives a 24-foot Sea Ray over the 12-foot drop with two aboard

Talk about a sea trial.

A prospective buyer of a 24-foot Sea Ray drove the boat over a 12-foot-high dam at 45 mph — unintentionally, of course.

The buyer, Michael Cortes, 33, had just taken the wheel of the 2002 Sundeck for a test drive April 27 on the Allegheny River northeast of Pittsburgh. He was ready to buy the boat from Roger Hruby and his son, Santo, who were helping him get familiar with the helm and other aspects of the Sea Ray. Unfortunately, no one on board was familiar enough with the river and the location of the Highland Park Dam in Aspinwall, Pa. The Hrubys do their boating on the Monongahela River about nine miles south and kept the boat at McKeesport Marina.

The men failed to see two red “Dam Danger” signs upstream of the dam and directed the Sea Ray toward the lock on the south riverbank. (This portion of the Allegheny flows east to west.) The Army Corps of Engineers also marks the dam with five buoys, but they were removed from the river because of high water in the winter and early spring. The buoys were scheduled to go back in the water a few days after the incident.

When the lockmaster saw the boat wasn’t going to stop, he used the lock’s whistle to sound four short blasts, which went unheard. Powered by a 320-hp 6.2-liter MerCruiser sterndrive, the bowrider blasted over the dam at about 1:30 p.m., clearing the turbulent water at the bottom by about 40 feet. The boat remained upright as it soared through the air, landed on its bottom and kept going. “It happened so fast,” says Roger Hruby, 62, a retired Pennsylvania state trooper. “There was no time to think, get tense or anything. After we landed, we all said, ‘What the hell happened? Did we just go over the dam?’ ”

Except for a small chip in the MerCruiser Bravo III outdrive’s skeg, the engine and boat are fine. Cortes — who ended up buying the boat — and the elder Hruby were OK, but Santo Hruby, 28, fractured a vertebra in his lower back. Santo also works in law enforcement, which explains the boat’s name, Blue Line.

The roiling water at the bottom of the Highland Park Dam can extend from a few feet to 20 feet or more downriver, says Richard A. Linn Jr., district chief and operations chief of the Pittsburgh River Rescue’s bureau of Emergency Medical Services. The flow of water spilling over the top of the dam creates a reverse current at the bottom that can easily suck a small boat into the dam.

That’s what happened when a 21-foot Sea Ray went over the dam July 1, 2006, killing its 42-year-old operator Daniel Stokes and his stepdaughter, 19-year-old Christen Gerhard. In that accident, the boat cleared the dam by only 12 feet, and its engine stalled, according to published reports. The reverse current pulled the boat to the dam, where the falling water flooded the 21-footer and flipped it. Six other occupants survived.

Linn says on average one boat goes over the dam — labeled No. 2 on the Allegheny — each year. “These dams are very dangerous,” says Linn, who has been with the River Rescue for 19 years. “Were these three guys lucky? Luck doesn’t even begin to explain it.”

Of the eight locks and dams on the river, the Highland Park Dam is the busiest, with about 4,500 vessels passing through the lock each year, according to Dave Sneberger, the Army Corps of Engineers’ chief of locks and dams for the Pittsburgh district. Boaters must navigate within 50 feet of one of the warning signs if they are navigating in the channel, he says.

Still, Hruby says better signage is needed. “We never saw the signs,” he says. “The river is so wide. You need a bigger sign.”

The Corps of Engineers disagrees, saying boaters need to be aware of dangers in the waters they navigate. “There are signs as well as no-wake zones surrounding the lock and dam, plus the signs are marked on the navigation charts,” says Jeff Hawk, the public affairs officer for the Corps of Engineers in the Pittsburgh district. “We also set buoys out after historical high-water season has passed, and we distribute navigation notices via e-mail and snail mail to the boating industry. We also post these navigation notices on our Web site [www .lrp.usace.army.mil].”

Hruby says the dam jump won’t deter him from boating, but he wants something slower, maybe a pontoon boat. Whatever the type, his friends want him to name it “Striking Distance,” the title of a 1993 film in which Bruce Willis jumps the Natrona Dam, also on the Allegheny, in a center-console powerboat.