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Visibility is just one factor under investigation in fatal St. Petersburg boat crash

A plane lands at Albert Whitted Airport, right, near the jetty that a boat with four teenagers crashed into Friday night, killing one. Gov. Charlie Crist has asked that a light be installed.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

A plane lands at Albert Whitted Airport, right, near the jetty that a boat with four teenagers crashed into Friday night, killing one. Gov. Charlie Crist has asked that a light be installed.

ST. PETERSBURG — In the daylight, boaters can't miss the jetty that extends from Albert Whitted Airport into the waters of Tampa Bay.

But at night, when the sky and waters darken, all that concrete and stone can seemingly vanish.

Lack of visibility is one of many factors that could explain why a powerboat slammed into the jetty Friday night, killing a 17-year-old girl and injuring four of her teen friends.

"Something as large as that is so simple to come around in daylight, people ask how could you miss it," said veteran fishing guide Brent Gaskill. "But I've come by that wing wall at night, and you have to know it's there and be paying attention to know where you have to swing around.

"There's no contrast between the dark black waters and that dark jetty."

Gov. Charlie Crist, an avid boater himself, agreed. During a boating trip with the first lady Monday afternoon, he swung by the jetty to inspect it himself. Then he asked the Coast Guard to install a light there.

"I'm looking at it right now from my condo," the governor said Monday night, "and you sure can't see it.

"My heart goes out to this poor young girl and her family. It's just a terrible tragedy, and if I can help in some small way, I want to help."

Authorities said it will take weeks to piece together what led to Paige Alyssa Davison's death. But poor visibility could help explain why another boat also slammed into another St. Petersburg jetty Friday night.

A woman and a 5-year-old child were thrown from a 20-foot boat in that crash, authorities said, in an accident two hours before the second, fatal accident.

Alcohol, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, may have played a role in both crashes.

• • •

The first crash took place at 9:30 p.m., the wildlife commission said, in the eastbound channel leaving Weedon Island.

The 20-foot 1994 Tracker boat was going at a high rate of speed, the commission said, when it slammed into a jetty.

Two people were ejected: Sandy Walker, 22, and an unidentified 5-year-old. They were both injured along with the boat's operator, 24-year-old Robert Price, and an unidentified 6-year-old, authorities said. All were wearing personal flotation devices.

The injured were all taken to Bayfront Medical Center. Their conditions weren't available Monday.

The second crash took place about 11:30 p.m. Friday as five teens returned from shark fishing. Their boat also was going fast, the commission said, and no one was wearing flotation devices.

They were heading southwest, turning into the channel leading to Harborage Marina, authorities said, when their 22-foot Hydra-Sports center-console runabout struck the jetty extending from the Coast Guard station at Albert Whitted Airport.

Davison, 17, was killed. Four other teens were injured: Kelli Delange, Kelsey Bedinghaus, Trey Sorenson, and the boat's operator, 18-year-old David West Jr. Bedinghaus was the only teen still at Bayfront on Monday, where she was reported in fair condition.

Sharks are nocturnal feeders, Gaskill said, which explains why the teens were fishing at night. The commission said there was a 6-foot hammerhead shark in the boat.

The boat's ownership was unclear Monday. But while West took the boat out, the wildlife commission said it was still investigating who was at the controls during the crash.

As for the governor's request, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said Capt. Tim Close is "looking at it seriously."

• • •

In Florida, anyone 21 and under needs a boating safety education card to operate a vessel with 10 or more horsepower. The card is mailed to anyone who passes the four-hour online course. Neither operator in Friday's accidents had a safety card, the wildlife commission said.

There are civil and criminal penalties for boating in a careless or reckless manner; operating a boat while legally impaired; or for causing a crash involving death or injury. Operators who allow others to improperly operate vessels can also face charges.

If investigators suspect whoever was at the control was impaired, they would have him submit to drug and alcohol testing. The commission, though, would not say if those actions were taken in either crash investigation.

• • •

Davison was a member of St. Petersburg High School's swim team. Before a meet Monday, she was remembered with a moment of silence at 7:20 p.m.

Many bore black bracelets with the letters "REMEMBER" stamped in white. "RIP" and "PAIGE" were also scrawled on arms, T-shirts and windshields.

Her friends huddled with her aunt, Patty Nardozzi. Her niece grew up fishing, boating and swimming, the aunt said, and as a lifeguard, Davison taught kids to be safe in the water.

"It's so important … for everyone to know that she is just a good girl." Nardozzi said. "It's a horrible, horrible thing to watch a family go through this. It's absolutely the most horrible thing you'll have to see."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Visibility is just one factor under investigation in fatal St. Petersburg boat crash 10/05/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 5, 2009 11:34pm]
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