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No answers yet in San Diego tragedy

An 8-year-old boy dies when a Coast Guard vessel collides with a 24-foot Sea Ray at a holiday parade

Three separate investigations have been launched to determine why a 33-foot Coast Guard boat smashed into a 26-foot bowrider in San Diego Bay, killing an 8-year-old boy during a holiday boat parade in late December.

The DeWeese family

The family of the boy, Anthony DeWeese, is considering legal action against the Coast Guard, says Michael Neil, the family's attorney. The Coast Guard says its internal investigation could take a year to complete.

That time frame is "ridiculous," says Neil. "This is a very straightforward accident that was caused by the Coast Guard boat going at excessive speed - certainly for the conditions."

The Dec. 20 collision occurred when the Coast Guard vessel - a foam-

collared aluminum boat powered with triple 275-hp outboards - was responding to a report of a grounded vessel, according to Coast Guard San Diego spokesman Lt. Josh Nelson. The DeWeeses and two other families were aboard a 2003 Sea Ray 240 Sundeck just south of Harbor Island, awaiting the start of the parade, says Neil. The Sea Ray, which had its navigation lights on, was making way at an idle speed of 3 to 4 mph, says Neil.

The boy's father, Alan DeWeese, 44, was at the helm of the Sea Ray. He made a desperate attempt to avoid the Coast Guard vessel, says Neil.

"He had one hand on the throttle and one hand on the steering wheel," says Neil. "He turned and looked over his shoulder and saw a boat approaching at a very high rate of speed. His immediate thought was the boat was going to veer off to avoid them. So he glanced forward for a second and then glanced back again, but realized the boat was not going to veer off. It was going to hit them directly in the middle of their stern. So he gave it full power and a hard turn to starboard and just barely got into the turn when the Coast Guard boat hit them."

Anthony DeWeese died of blunt force trauma, according to published reports.

His mother, Caroline DeWeese, and two brothers, Nathan, 9, and Dominick, 3, were also on the boat. Altogether, there were 13 people on board - six adults and seven children, all under 11, says Neil. Five others were injured, including two children, but were expected to recover.

None of the five Coast Guard crew was hurt. The speed at which the 33-foot Coast Guard boat was traveling and other details will not be revealed until the Coast Guard's investigation is complete, says Nelson. Alan DeWeese, an experienced lifetime boater, believes the rescue boat was traveling between 30 and 40 mph, says Neil.

The Coast Guard will conduct its own investigation and will work with the San Diego Harbor Police on a second probe.

"We're all going to want to have the answers before the investigations are completed," said Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo, commander of the Eleventh Coast Guard District, at a press conference four days after the incident. "The way we get accurate, complete information that we can make good decisions on to keep something like this from happening again is by deliberative process - and that takes time."

At the news conference, the media asked about accusations from local boaters that Coast Guard boats are often seen darting around the bay at high rates of speed. (The 33-footer, called a special-purpose craft, has "a zero to plane time under 3 seconds and a top speed in excess of 60 mph," according to the Coast Guard Web site.)

The Coast Guard responded by saying its boats may be seen going fast during training exercises or during search-and-rescue operations. "There's a lot of training that goes on that the general public doesn't realize," says Nelson. "They may think they're just 'cowboying' from Point A to Point B when it may be a training exercise."

The National Transportation Safety Board also has initiated an investigation, which is expected to take from 12 to 18 months, says NTSB public affairs officer Peter C. Knudson. Four investigators remained on the scene into mid-January, interviewing the Sea Ray occupants and the Coast Guard crew, says Knudson.

Investigators will analyze electronic navigation data from the Coast Guard boat, and surveys will be done on both vessels, says Knudson. Drug and alcohol test results on the five Coast Guard crewmembers and Alan DeWeese were negative, he says.

The Coast Guard boat ran over the stern of the Sea Ray from the starboard side to the port side, says Neil. The boy was seated in the transom seat. "They searched the water, but they found him buried underneath a hatch door to the head that had been blown off. It's a real tragedy," says Neil.

The Coast Guard declined to estimate how many boats were in the bay to watch the parade - the 38th annual San Diego Bay Festival of Lights - but Nelson did say the area was highly congested with recreational boats.

The closest boat to the Sea Ray was only about 50 feet away, says Neil. "The [Sea Ray's] stern light was on - that's been verified by independent witnesses that I have talked to," says Neil. "The only possible excuse was they were responding to a boat aground - and that is not an emergency. The boat was not sinking and no lives were in danger."

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.