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Bridge collision has fatal consequences

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Woman dies after being hit by falling mast, which got caught beneath a lowered drawbridge

Woman dies after being hit by falling mast, which got caught beneath a lowered drawbridge

It had begun as a birthday party, but the cruise ended tragically when the operator of the S.S. Minow tried to squeeze under a drawbridge.

He didn’t quite make it. The 41-foot trawler’s mast caught on the underside of the bridge, collapsed and fell on 75-year-old Frances Strock, killing her and leaving husband, Arthur, bereft.

“I was beside her within minutes of the incident,” says Strock, of Deerfield Beach, Fla. “I knew there was no hope. No hope.”

A doctor on the boat tried to resuscitate her while paramedics rushed to a dock on Fort Lauderdale, Fla.’s New River, where the boat had tied up.

Strock said his wife of 58 years did not respond.

The April 8 cruise began about 5 p.m. that afternoon from Hallandale, a town on the Intracoastal Waterway south of Fort Lauderdale. The guests — 14 of them, according to press reports — gathered at the home of Minow’s owner, Robert Raymond, 42, for a birthday cruise. Then they motored up the ICW to the New River and up the river’s South Fork to a private dock, where they tied up for dinner and celebrated the birthday of one of the guests, Strock says.

The Andrews Avenue bridge is a one-leaf drawbridge with a clearance of 17 to 20 feet at its lowest point depending on the tide, says Norbert Abend, the bridge-tender for 13 years. But signs at the bridge say the clearance is actually 3 feet higher at the bridge’s center point, and he says yachtsmen who know the river tell him the clearance is even a little higher than that at the bridge’s north end. Bridge openings are on demand, except during rush hours weekdays. Abend says openings normally take just a few minutes, unless vehicular traffic is heavy. Then an opening could take 10 minutes or more.

Going up the New River, Raymond had sounded his horn at the Andrews Avenue bridge to alert the tender that he needed an opening, but Minow had to wait “a considerable time” for a river-cruise boat to arrive from upriver before the bridge finally opened, Strock says. “The cruise boat came through, then we followed it — going upstream,” he says.

Coming back around 9:30 p.m., Strock was sitting next to Raymond topside as the skipper maneuvered the boat up close to the Andrews bridge. He didn’t honk his horn this time to ask for a bridge opening, Strock says. Instead, Raymond talked it over with several guests, who eyeballed the bridge clearance and mast to see if Minow could get under the closed span. “He was trying to see, I guess, if it was possible not to have to wait again,” Strock says. “It looked like it was a tight squeeze. I asked, ‘Now Rob, if you can’t make it, are you able to back out?’ And his answer was, ‘Yes.’

Strock says there were several longitudinal steel beams on the underside of the bridge. Minow’s mast slipped under the first one but got hung up on one of the others, Strock says. He thought one might have been lower than the others.

Abend doubted that.

“He did clear the first lip of the bridge,” the bridgetender says. “They think a wave lifted the vessel and caused the spar to hit the bridge.”

Strock’s wife was sitting on an aft deck. The metal mast, carrying a small boom and a light on top, crashed down on Frances Strock’s head or neck, her husband says. One of the passengers called 911 for help.

Abend had seen Minow on the river several times before. He says regulars know the bridge clearances, and they know under what conditions they can squeeze under, often with just inches to spare. Abend says he’s seen operators crash into the bridge because their motor got stuck in forward or because they lost control of the boat.

“I’ve been here for 13 years, and I’ve never seen anyone hit the bridge who was going under thinking they could make it,” he says.

Strock says he and his wife had cruised with Raymond before, “and he always seemed to be extremely careful, extremely cautious. … I know for a fact he didn’t just run into the bridge. He was checking to see if it was doable.”

Frances Strock is survived by her husband, three grown children and seven grandchildren.