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Three boats have hit same jetty where crash killed St. Petersburg teen

ST. PETERSBURG — The boat was headed into Bayboro Harbor's channel that night when it slammed into something unseen, injuring everyone onboard.

Alcohol and speed were factors in the crash, authorities found. So was this: The boat operator never saw the concrete barrier in his path.

But this wasn't the crash that killed 17-year-old Paige Alyssa Davison Friday night. This one occurred nearly four years ago.

Authorities say there have been at least four crashes in the waters off Albert Whitted Airport in the last four years — three of them involving the same jetty wall that was hit Friday night.

The accident that killed Davison and injured four other teens will be under investigation for weeks. Speed and alcohol may be factors.

But now the jetty wall itself is under scrutiny, too.

The governor on Monday called for lights to be installed along the wall. Now the St. Petersburg city attorney's office said it has ordered a full investigation of the jetty: its origins, its history and whether it poses a special hazard to boaters that needs to be addressed.

"Based upon the tragedy over the weekend, the city is conducting an internal investigation," said Assistant City Attorney Joseph Patner. "We're looking into all of those things, which include ownership, control and the safety issues."

• • •

The concrete obstruction juts out from Albert Whitted Airport's southeastern corner about 50 to 70 feet into the waters of Tampa Bay. The wall's exact origins are unclear. State and federal authorities believe it was built in 1929 to prevent erosion.

But in recent years, it has become the scene of three boat crashes, including Friday's fatal accident.

The first crash was on Nov. 13, 2005, when authorities said the operator crashed a 33-foot Cruisers Yacht onto the jetty wall. The second crash was on Dec. 8, 2007, when authorities said the operator ran a 35-foot Formula boat onto the same wall.

Clearwater lawyer Jonathan Douglas represented the operator in the second crash against charges he was impaired and took the boat without permission.

Those two crashes shared several similarities with Friday's crash: All took place at night while the vessels were on a southwesterly course into the channel of Bayboro Harbor.

Douglas said that while preparing his defense, he took a night trip to see the jetty. He observed a potentially dangerous alignment: The channel's green and red navigational lights can be seen behind the wall.

Someone following the lights in, he said, could be misled into turning toward the lights without realizing a concrete obstruction is blocking the way.

"If you line that up, if you go straight at them," Douglas said, "you hit the wall."

But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission blamed both crashes on other factors. In both the 2005 and 2007 accidents, investigators said alcohol, speed and operator error were to blame. The boaters in both crashes were cited for boating under the influence.

Visibility was good, both reports said, yet neither craft had a spotter helping navigate potential hazards.

But local fishing guides have told the St. Petersburg Times that under certain conditions, the jetty wall can be difficult to see under night skies.

That's what Gov. Charlie Crist believes. That's why on Monday he asked the Coast Guard to light up the wall, which is near its St. Petersburg base.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said Tuesday that the request is still under consideration.

• • •

But that raises another issue: What agency is responsible for the jetty?

The Coast Guard, a federal agency, is in charge of maintaining all navigational aids. But state authorities believe the jetty is actually on city property.

On top of that, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration could both have a say over whether lights should be installed along the jetty because it's near the airport.

And Albert Whitted actually has two jetties, the other one extending off the airport's northeast corner.

That was the scene of another accident on Dec. 16, 2005, when a 27-foot Carolina boat crashed into the wall.

Like the previous accidents, state investigators also blamed alcohol, speed and boater error. But so far there have been no calls to investigate that obstruction.

Why have there been so many crashes recently in the same waters?

"The number of boats has increased dramatically over the last 20 years," said FWC spokesman Gary Morse, "along with the number of boating accidents."

Times staff writer Terry Tomalin and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Three boats have hit same jetty where crash killed St. Petersburg teen 10/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 12:46pm]
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