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Watercraft blows up "without warning," injuring two off Clearwater Beach

CLEARWATER BEACH — Ronnie Roberts once pulled people from a raging condominium fire and another time crash-landed a small plane that caught fire on Clearwater Beach.

Still, he said, nothing compares with the shock he felt Tuesday when a personal watercraft he had just rented exploded into pieces in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I've never seen anything like that in my life," Roberts said.

A father and his teenage son were injured in the blast, which happened just before 2:30 p.m. behind the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach.

Christopher Jahntz, 43, and his 15-year-old son, Christian, both of Bartlett, Ill., were taken to local hospitals with non-life threatening injuries after the explosion. Witnesses said a second son was with the family, but was not injured.

Christopher Jahntz was treated and released from St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. Christian Jahntz was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, where officials said they could not release his condition because he is a juvenile and they did not have parent consent.

The Jahntzes had just rented a 2006 Yamaha WaveRunner from Roberts at the Sand Key Aircraft and Water Sports.

Christopher Jahntz was showing his son how to operate the vessel and first started the engine, then disconnected the safety lanyard to turn the engine off. When he went to restart it, the watercraft exploded "without warning," according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The three-seater watercraft briefly caught fire, but extinguished itself.

Roberts had just shown the father how to operate the vessel and was in the water nearby when it exploded, he said. Roberts carried the father to shore.

Other witnesses rendered aid until paramedics arrived, the Sheriff's Office said.

Scott Regan and his three daughters, vacationing from Minneapolis, were on the beach nearby when the watercraft exploded.

"It looked like confetti at a birthday party," said Monica Regan, 20. "Pieces just flew everywhere."

The noise was deafening, the Regans said.

"It was like those really loud concussion explosions like on the Fourth of July, that boom," Scott Regan said.

Scott Regan yelled for his daughters to call 911, then went to help Roberts and others who were assisting the father. The man was bleeding from the head and complaining of pain in his legs, Scott Regan said.

"At first, he was worried about his son, but we told him his son was okay," said Regan, 46.

Roberts said he owns several Yamaha watercraft that are the same model as the one that blew up. They were recalled for a problem with the throttle cable last year and he had them serviced accordingly, he said.

He recently acquired the one that Jahntz rented. When he bought it from another watercraft rental business that was closing, the owner told him the vessel had been serviced because of the recall, Roberts said.

Sheriff's deputies said human error did not appear to be the cause of the explosion. They impounded the wreckage for inspection.

Statistics on exploding watercraft weren't available Tuesday. But it's not the first time one has blown up without warning. Two Pinellas County teenage sisters sustained minor injuries in August, when their borrowed Polaris watercraft exploded in the Intracoastal Waterway north of the Memorial Causeway.

Roberts said he was relieved the father and son were okay. The experience was much more traumatic than the time he made an emergency landing on the beach in the early 1990s.

"That didn't shake me, but I'm shook up now," Roberts said.

Roberts was lauded as a hero in 2002, when he guided a burned firefighter and several residents out of a blazing inferno at the Dolphin Cove condominiums in Clearwater.

"I'm not putting any more (personal watercraft) out today," he said. "You can believe that."

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Watercraft blows up "without warning," injuring two off Clearwater Beach 03/24/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 2:11am]
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