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Questions, lawsuits in Fla. follow deadly crash

Two died and seven were injured in a nighttime accident involving four boats during Columbus Day weekend partying on Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

Two died and seven were injured in a nighttime accident involving four boats during Columbus Day weekend partying on Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

A 35-foot Intrepid collided with a disabled 21-foot Sea Ray rental boat with nine people aboard about 8:30 p.m. as the Sea Ray was being towed north on the Intracoastal Waterway just south of the Rickenbacker Causeway, says Dani Moschella, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Another rental boat, a 22-foot Sea Ray, was the towboat, and it was pulling a second disabled vessel, a 17-foot Bayliner, behind the broken-down Sea Ray, she says.

FWC identified the Intrepid’s driver as Roland Desroches, 30, of Miami, and the driver of the towing boat as a 16-year-old male youth. The other drivers still had not been identified. No charges had been filed, as the investigation was ongoing and results of toxicology tests — a normal procedure in a fatal accident — were not in, says Moschella. The area of the accident is not a restricted speed zone, so boats can motor through at speeds safe for prevailing conditions.

Days after the accident, investigators still were trying to piece together what happened. Among the questions: Whether the towed boats’ navigation lights were on — or if they, too, were disabled — and whether the boats were properly lighted for a tow.

Rule 24 of the federal navigation rules requires a powerboat towing another boat to display two masthead lights in a vertical line and a yellow towing light above the stern light to signify “boats in tow” at night. However, if a skipper is not in the towing business but is a good Samaritan and tows a boat in distress or in need of assistance, he can do it without displaying towing lights, but still should take “all possible measures” to illuminate the towline and tow, according to the rule.

Moschella says a party of 21 friends had gone out together on the three smaller boats that Saturday, Oct. 7, on a weekend when hundreds of boats and thousands of revelers traditionally gather off Elliott Key for a raft-up party while sailboats race up and down the bay in the annual Columbus Day Regatta. Unrelated to the weekend raft-up, the 52-year-old sailboat race drew 107 entries this year, says chairwoman Liz Gabay.

There were 10 people on the Intrepid, 10 on the towboat, nine on the Sea Ray that was hit and two on the Bayliner — 31 people altogether — the largest number in memory for a single recreational boating accident in South Florida, Moschella says.

The dead were identified as Monica Burguera, 20, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and James Noel-Pou, 23, of Doral, whose body was not found until the following Monday. Burguera was a student at FloridaInternationalUniversity in Miami, Noel-Pou a recent graduate of the school.

The cause of Burguera and Noel-Pou’s deaths were boat propeller injuries to the head, says Larry Cameron, operations director for the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office. Burguera won’t speculate on how fast the Intrepid was going when it collided with the rental boat. The FWC’s investigation will try to determine that, he says.

The family of Noel-Pou filed suit in Dade County Circuit Court Oct. 13, seeking damages from Desroches — the Intrepid’s driver — and from the Miami Beach Marina Club Nautico, which rented out the boats. The suit alleges Club Nautico rented the group a boat that had had a lot of repair problems in the past and supplied them to the 16-year-old driver, who it alleges was not a licensed captain and did not know how to properly tow a boat or light a tow, according to the family’s attorney, Stuart Z. Grossman.

Moschella says the group that Noel-Pou was with was so traumatized by the crash that no one realized immediately that he was missing.

“When he went missing, there was no one on the boats in a position to say, ‘He was sitting here on the boat with us,’ ” she says. “They were all injured, one was deceased, [one was missing], some were in shock. It was chaotic. It was an absolutely tragic case.”

Rescuers were on scene within minutes, but the Coast Guard search for Noel-Pou didn’t begin until Sunday evening after the young man’s father — who had flown in from Puerto Rico — checked local hospitals and reported him missing, according to press reports.

Sea Tow Capt. Scott McClary, the first rescuer to arrive, says he found a confusing, chaotic scene with many serious injuries, some of them critical and all on the same boat — the disabled Sea Ray. “I’ve been boating my whole life and have never seen anything like it,” he says.

He was delivering a battery out to one of his towboats when he overheard what he believes was a good Samaritan report over the VHF: “There has been a boat collision. There may be people in the water. There have been injuries. They need help.”

Then the caller gave the GPS coordinates. McClary says he was on scene in five minutes, the Coast Guard arriving right behind him. He saw no major damage to the towboat or Bayliner, but everything above the gunwale of the broken-down Sea Ray had been sheared off. “It’s like someone took a saw and ran it right down [the deck],” he says.

McClary says when he tows at night, he has his navigation lights on, yellow and red lights flashing, a regulation bright yellow towing light displayed, plus floodlights trained on the deck of his own boat and on the vessel being towed. “I like to look like a Christmas tree,” he says. “The last thing you want is for someone to run over [your tow].”

Columbus Day weekend is McClary’s busiest of the year, busier than even the Fourth of July or Memorial Day. He says his six towboats snagged 40 tow jobs in 24 hours over this Columbus Day weekend.

Both the Columbus Day Regatta and raft-up are in BiscayneNational Park, which encompasses most of the bay. The park service moved aggressively to bring some order to the raft-up after Columbus Day weekend 2002, when three died in two nighttime boat accidents, says Susan Gonshor, the park spokeswoman. “After those accidents in 2002, we [the park] realized we could not handle this alone,” she says. This year 12 enforcement agencies — the park service, FWC, Miami-Dade marine police and fire- rescue units, the Coast Guard, marine police from neighboring Broward County and five towns, and a marine security unit from nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base — patrolled waters in and around the anchorage, and made hundreds of spot boat safety inspections and boating under the influence checks.

The Coast Guard loaned its construction tender Hudson as a temporary detention facility to process arrests right there in the anchorage at Elliott Key. Gonshor reported at least 40 arrests, most for BUI and disorderly conduct, but also for controlled substances, underage drinking, outstanding warrants and illegal charters, among others.

The raft-up has become more orderly with the greater police presence, and there were no boating fatalities in 2003, 2004 or 2005, Gonshor says. “The fatalities that have happened [in 2002 and 2006] all happened when people were heading home in the evening,” she says. In her opinion, boaters celebrating Columbus Day at the raft-up ought to leave for home well before dark or “stay put” overnight. “[At night] the lights of the boats blend in with the lights of the city of Miami,” making it difficult to see traffic, she says.

At its zenith in 1978, the Columbus Day Regatta drew 500 sailboat entries; since then the race has shrunk while the party has grown into an event that, for a while, threatened to mushroom out of control.

Though the racers do party, they have their own anchorage north of what race chairman Gabay calls “the hubbub” — the big raft-up.

“Every year we try to remind people to be safe,” FWC’s Moschella says. “But it’s difficult when you have so many people in one area. They’re having fun, they’re not paying attention. Add to that drunkenness, and it can be very dangerous.”