Operator in fatal Hudson River crash was drunk

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The operator of the powerboat that struck a construction barge on the Hudson River, killing a bride-to-be and her fiancé’s best man, was drunk at the time of the crash, according to an indictment. However, attorneys for Jojo John, 35, of Nyack, N.Y., blamed the collision on the barge’s inadequate lighting; they allege it did not meet Coast Guard requirements.

Rockland County (N.Y.) District Attorney Thomas Zugibe on Nov. 7 announced the indictment in the accident, which occurred on the night of July 26, just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, with six people aboard a 19-foot Stingray. Lindsey Stewart of Piermont, N.Y., and Mark Lennon of Pearl River, N.Y., both 30, were ejected from the boat and drowned. John and three others, including the groom-to-be, were injured.

The indictment against John lists 18 charges, including vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, vehicular assault and operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol or drugs. “Drinking and driving is a lethal mix, as it appears to have been in this incident, which left several families shattered,” Zugibe says.

John faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. The prosecutor says lab tests showed John’s blood-alcohol content was 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal level. He also said “cocaine metabolites” — substances produced after the body breaks down cocaine — were found in John’s system. He did not say at what level or whether that had anything to do with the crash.

John’s criminal defense lawyer, David Narain, says he will dispute the toxicology findings. He says poor lighting on the barge, not John’s actions, caused the crash. James Mercante, the Manhattan maritime attorney representing John in civil matters and advising Narain on the admiralty law aspects of the criminal case, says the “number of criminal charges is excessive. Mr. John was injured, as well, and continues to suffer terribly by the loss of his two dear friends and injury to his other friends on board the vessel.”

Mercante also said that neither the survivors nor the families of Stewart and Lennon supported the indictment and that they question the thoroughness of the state’s investigation.

“The attorneys for the families have openly questioned the solar lighting aboard the dark barges as being obstructed, insufficient or non-existent,” he says. “The Tappan Zee Bridge construction authority and mayor of the Village of Nyack had prior complaints that the barges were not properly lit and could pose a hazard to navigation at night. Even the local emergency responders took over 30 minutes after the casualty to locate the visibly unlit construction barges in darkness.”

Mercante says he plans to file a federal admiralty action on behalf of John, seeking exoneration from liability under maritime law.

Stewart’s and Lennon’s parents also blamed the crash on the poor lighting on the barge, moored in preparation for the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge. They issued a statement the day before Stewart’s funeral, saying they had spoken to the survivors and “none of them saw the barge. They did not brace for impact and could not identify what they had hit, even after impact.”

The Coast Guard and the state Thruway Authority, which is building the bridge, have said the lighting was adequate. However, the Thruway Authority added lighting after the crash.

January 2014 issue