CLEARWATER — A birthday celebration nearly turned tragic early Sunday morning as a speedboat struck the jetty at Clearwater Pass, tossing all nine people aboard into the water.
A report that the 21-foot pleasure craft ran aground came into Clearwater Fire and Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard about 3 a.m. A passer-by reported that the boat struck the jetty "at a high rate of speed," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Tara Molle.
Authorities said they were amazed that only three of the boaters were injured, and not seriously. One was treated for a back injury and one — the birthday celebrant — had a broken wrist. The third's injury was not disclosed.
"Those are big, sharp rocks. All those people are lucky to be alive," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Robert Scholl. "This accident could've been much worse."
Less than three years ago, in October 2009, 17-year-old St. Petersburg High student Paige Alyssa Davison died after the power boat in which she and four other teens were riding smashed into a seawall late at night near Albert Whitted Airport.
Clearwater Pass has been the scene of multiple crashes over the years, including a fatal one in 1998 in which two men were crushed when their boat slammed into the jetty and landed upside down on rocks.
In 2006, a Clearwater Beach developer was hurled 35 feet in the air and onto the rocks. He received stitches to his forehead and knee and fully recovered.
The crashes prompted calls for the city to light the 4,000-foot jetty, which juts 7 feet above water and extends west from Sand Key Park.
Scholl said Clearwater Pass is well-traveled and that lighted hotels line both sides of the inlet. He said the crash happened near a condominium complex.
Coast Guard and city officials have said that boaters are supposed to stay in the marked channel, which has its own lights, and consult local navigational charts.
"The jetty is lit up like a Christmas tree and normally no one has problems going back and forth, so I can't believe they hit the jetty the way they did when it was lit up," Scholl said.
However, James John Logal of Largo, who was operating the 2003 Monterey fiberglass craft, attributed the crash to his inability to see the jetty. He said he thought it was 100 yards to his right. He said he tried to swerve away, but it was too late.
"Three o'clock in the morning, I couldn't see the jetty until the last second … because there's no light," said Logal, 26. "It needs to be marked in a serious way."
Logal said he was the designated driver for the group, which was returning to shore after celebrating a passenger's birthday.
He said he has been boating for 10 years and has about six years of night boating experience. This was his first boating accident, he said.
Tests determined Logal wasn't intoxicated, Molle said, but wildlife officials cited him for failing to maintain a proper lookout.
Molle said a Coast Guard crew arrived on the scene less than 20 minutes after the call and found all nine sitting on the jetty.
Emergency workers took one passenger, a 23-year-old woman, to Morton Plant Hospital, Scholl said. He said two 23-year-old women were taken to Largo Medical Center. The passengers' names had not been released.