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Tragedy on the water begins and ends with Tampa Bay family's closeness

LUTZ

Four-year-old Quinn Atherton saw a baby picture of himself the other day.

"That was before the accident," he told his mother.

"Yes," she answered.

Before the accident and after the accident.

Even a child has taken to dividing life this way.

• • •

Before the accident, it was a beautiful spring day.

May 9, 2009.

George Meyer Jr. and 13 members of his family piled on the Maddie Mae, a 33-foot Sea Ray Sundancer he had named after his granddaughter Maddie, who was taking her first Holy Communion the next day.

His grown kids and six other grandkids had gathered to help Maddie celebrate.

Before they left, George and his son checked the engine compartment. His wife and daughters stocked the coolers with food and drinks.

As they glided away from his Apollo Beach dock around 10:30 a.m., the water was calm and the sky was clear.

• • •

They had been anchored off Pine Key Island, also called Beer Can Island, for about an hour when they heard the noon whistle sound from nearby MacDill Air Force Base.

Children played in the shallow waters. Adults visited. They broke out the sandwiches and corralled five of the kids into the boat's cabin to finish lunch, watch Kung Fu Panda, and maybe nap.

George's wife and their daughter Carrie Atherton, 33, sat on the boat's back bench with a 7-year-old boy nestled in between, playing cards.

Carrie's husband, Mike, also 33, stood on board nearby.

From the water, George, 57, noticed slack in the anchor line and climbed up to the starboard side of the boat to tighten the rope.

It's the last thing he remembers before the boat exploded.

• • •

Bystanders on the beach and nearby boaters heard the boom and turned.

Cushions and coolers flew 30 feet high, according to one witness.

Mike felt himself sail through the air for what seemed like forever. The next moment, he was in the water. He looked up and saw his wife floating nearby, face down.

Thick black smoke billowed.

Carrie's sister rushed inside the Maddie Mae to begin pulling the five children from the cabin. One, who was 6, had already put on his own life jacket and swam to shore.

Carrie's brother-in-law thrashed through the water to grab the kid from the card game and, on the way, stepped on George's wife. Nancy Meyer, 55, had been tossed to the bottom of the bay. Her son-in-law pulled her up.

The next thing George remembers is being on the beach.

Mike heard someone talking.

It had to have been one of the strangers who came to help.

"You're going to be okay," the voice said. "Your family is going to be okay."

• • •

Neither Mike nor Carrie remembers learning that Mike, a lineman for Progress Energy, had lost his legs in the explosion of George's boat.

They just remember knowing.

In time, infection would also claim Mike's left arm.

George woke up at Tampa General Hospital in June, peered under his blanket and saw that his left leg was gone. He looked a second time to be sure. Besides that, his elbow was broken.

His daughter Carrie, a runner, had two broken ribs, several broken vertebrae, two broken legs and a broken heel bone.

Wife Nancy pulled saltwater into her lungs, suffered a head injury, broke both heel bones and an elbow, and required abdominal surgery.

His daughter-in-law suffered broken ribs and a bruise on her back.

The grandson playing cards had broken wrists and heel bones.

Remarkably, none of the other children were hurt, including Maddie and her little brother, Quinn.

• • •

After the accident, family and friends swarmed.

People flew in from their home state of Iowa, as well as Minnesota, Kansas and California.

For five months, members of the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team brought meals to the hospital and the family home. Friends babysat and cleaned house.

The Athertons and Meyers had been active members for years.

Always solid, Mike had formed the center of ski pyramids. Little Maddie had taken to the sport like a natural, skiing doubles with her father lifting her high as he glided across the water.

While family took care of the kids, friends were in and out of the hospital, holding hands, talking, praying, laughing.

Neither Mike, Carrie, Nancy nor George remembers any of this.

All they remember until sometime in June are snippets of voices, flashes of scenes.

George remembers his brother-in-law giving him a shave. Carrie remembers someone bringing in a laptop computer so she could see her husband on camera from another hospital floor.

Nancy remembers seeing nurses wheel her daughter's bed into her room for the first time.

"Hold my hand," Nancy told her.

And so they lay, side by side, hand in hand, saying nothing.

• • •

Ten months after the accident, Mike steps onto a grassy incline outside of a physical therapy clinic in New Port Richey.

His left arm is now replaced by a prosthetic with an electronic grip.

Carefully he puts one prosthetic leg in front of the other.

Managing the right leg is harder. It was amputated higher. But therapist Henk-Auke Rosheuvel thinks Mike can master this. Mike's age, Mike's balance, Mike's years of athleticism leave little doubt. He wants to ski again, to swim again. He believes he will run again.

A few feet away, his father-in-law walks out of the center on a prosthetic left leg.

For months, George drove both of them to therapy.

George and Nancy lived at Mike and Carrie's home in Lutz from August until the first of the year. At first, their four wheelchairs felt like bumper cars and little Maddie, 8, played nurse.

Mike is learning everything over again. How to walk. How to eat with his right hand. How to take out the trash and fold the clothes. He took over the children's bathroom because it has room for a wheelchair.

Last week, he drove with an instructor in a modified car. He would like to equip the family's Dodge Durango. Though on long-term disability, he hopes to work again.

George, as the Maddie Mae's captain, can't help but feel great sadness over the explosion's impact on his family, especially when he thinks of his son-in-law.

"There's no one that would have deserved this less," George says.

An investigator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission examined the wreckage and concluded that a fuel leak caused vapors to collect in the engine compartment. He did not identify the source of the leak or determine what ignited the fumes.

George figures he'll save his questions for God.

Carrie and Mike have stopped asking why. It serves little purpose.

"We've cried about it a lot," Carrie says. "We still cry about it. But you know —"

Mike interrupts: "You got to move on."

"Got to," she says.

• • •

A new grandchild was born to George's family last week. Carrie's sister, Kim Sutton, who had plucked all the children from the cabin that day, gave birth to her second child, a girl, on Thursday.

It was the happiest day since before the accident.

George wore a pink shirt to the hospital and held the baby in his arms.

"She's just a little cutie," he said. "That's kind of what we've been waiting for."

Maddie finally had her Holy Communion in September. It was the first time the family could all make it to church together.

She doesn't have to be a little nurse anymore.

She and her brother can be children again.

When they play outdoors after school, Mike rolls to the edge of the sidewalk and looks on.

He misses reaching out and grabbing them, lifting them and twirling them around. "Daddy, watch!" Maddie yells, turning herself upside down on their backyard jungle gym.

He misses skiing doubles with her, misses supporting her on his shoulders.

These days, she skis with another man from the team.

Mike watches her, quietly giving pointers.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Benefit SkiFest

The Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team plans an afternoon of ski shows March 27 to raise money for the Atherton family. The shows will be at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. at Tower Lake in Oldsmar, behind the Oldsmar Flea Market. Admission is free, but there will be a silent auction, raffles and concessions. The family hopes to use proceeds to modify Mike Atherton's car, make his home more wheelchair accessible, and help deal with other medical expenses. For more details on the shows or how to donate directly, call (727) 480-9365 or (813) 855-4678 or visit the ski team's Web site.

Tragedy on the water begins and ends with Tampa Bay family's closeness 03/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 6, 2010 8:12pm]
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