The Tarpon Springs community is mourning the death of Michael J. Billiris, a former city commissioner who died Tuesday in a boat accident near Anclote River Park.
Billiris, 59, was the owner of Island Wind Tours, an active member of Rotary and the nephew of Beverley Billiris, the former mayor of Tarpon Springs who is now running for Pinellas County Commission. He took care of his mother after his father died. His only son, Marine Capt. John Billiris, recently returned from Afghanistan, and is traveling from California to help make funeral arrangements.
"The entire family is devastated," said Beverley Billiris, who acted Wednesday as the spokesperson for the close-knit clan that has more than 70 members living in Tarpon Springs and North Pinellas County.
"The visitors to the home have been ongoing since the news came through," she said. "We thank everyone for their prayers and their condolences."
Michael Billiris' boat collided about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday with another boat near the main docks at Anclote River Park, perched at the mouth of the Anclote River on the Pasco-Pinellas county line.
Billiris' boat crashed into the mangroves, killing him and injuring his passenger, identified as Laura LeCouris, sister of Tarpon Springs City Manager Mark LeCouris. Beverley Billiris said LeCouris suffered a broken shoulder and other minor injuries in the crash.
Eddie Feidt, a lifeguard who witnessed the collision, told the St. Petersburg Times that one boat accelerated and cut off the other one. Billiris' boat was inbound; the other was leaving the channel, said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"It appears from initial reports this accident could have been avoided easily," Morse said. One boater, or possibly both, failed to follow basic navigation rules, he said. The investigation is still under way, and Morse declined to say who might be at fault.
The driver of the other boat was 21-year-old John Palasky of New Port Richey, a football standout from Gulf High School who had a scholarship to play at Benedictine College in Kansas in 2008. Palasky and his two passengers, whose names have not been released, received bumps and bruises, authorities said.
Kathleen Palasky said her son's right hand was broken, but "he's okay." On the family attorney's advice, she declined to discuss the accident.
No-wake zone needed?
Michael Billiris was a 1969 graduate of Tarpon Springs High School and was the quarterback on the 1968 team. He served on the Tarpon Springs Commission from 1980 to 1982. An experienced boater, he was known to donate the use of his charter craft to raise money for high schools and other charitable organizations.
"Michael was a great guy and had a million-dollar smile," said John Tarapani, a lifelong Tarpon Springs resident who went to high school with Billiris.
Although his friend's death was a shock, Tarapani said the crash happened in "one of the most dangerous places on the river."
"They were in part of the river (where boaters' attitude is the) faster the better," Tarapani said. "There's no restriction on that part of the river, and there should be."
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office's marine deputies have previously urged the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to make the area a no-wake zone, said sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin. Boaters come in at all speeds, Tobin said, even though it's a narrow area with a nearby beach. The adjacent Progress Energy power plant sucks in water at times, adding to the current.
The area is so dangerous that it attracts spectators, Tobin said.
"They go out there and watch as a form of entertainment at the demise of inexperienced boaters," Tobin said.
Pasco County parks and recreation director Rick Buckman said his department has tried to make that channel — which is the county's busiest boat launch — a no-wake or minimum-wake zone for years.
He said there was a big push eight years ago, but it was quashed because Tarpon Springs declined to participate. Buckman said about 600 to 1,000 feet of the channel swerves from Pasco County into Tarpon Springs' territory.
"We became concerned that if we posted our portion and they didn't post their portion, that boats would come in, slow down, speed back up, slow down again and cause a great deal of confusion," Buckman said.
Morse, the Fish and Wildlife spokesman, said there wasn't enough local support at the time to create a slow-speed zone.
Beverley Billiris remembers the discussion eight years ago at the commission. Tarpon Springs officials worried the measure would hurt commercial fishermen, she said.
"But this accident was not caused by a no-wake zone. … It was a misjudgment of which way to turn to avoid an impact. It has no bearing on this. That does not mean that the commission shouldn't look into it again, depending on how many commercial boats we have today. The demographics have changed.
"But at that time, the commercial industry was a viable entity."
Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie said he knew Michael Billiris for a long time.
"To hear that he was dead and the way he died. … Mike made his living out there on the river," Archie said. "This is definitely a shock and a tragedy."
He said he would support "anything that can make the river safer for boaters."
"I haven't heard a lot about what the cause of the accident was but if (having a no-wake zone) could help save a life, definitely, it should be an immediate priority," Archie said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story.