The water was glassy smooth south of the Gandy Bridge on Sunday as the two 36-foot Spectre racing boats moved into high gear.
Chris Parker's boat accelerated to nearly 100 mph as fellow boater Clifford J. Davis, running alongside, noticed a large wave ahead, probably a "rogue" stirred up by a freighter or tugboat.
Davis slowed to take the wave, but Parker and his two passengers sped by.
"We hit the waves and we looked over and Chris' boat hit the same waves and went airborne," said Davis. "It flipped and it was just awful. It broke into pieces, so we immediately turned around."
Parker, co-founder of the Bonefish Grill restaurant chain, was thrown from the boat and disappeared. One of his passengers, Helene "Chris" Sears, 29, also fell from the boat and clung to a seat cushion. The other passenger, Jody Forca, 27, managed to stay in the boat as it righted itself and drifted toward the Gandy Bridge.
Davis, a residential and commercial contractor, began scanning the water for Parker.
"We pulled up to the debris looking for something, hoping we'd see him, but he just never came up," said Davis.
Forca and Sears, who live near each other in South Tampa, were rescued and taken to the hospital.
But Parker, 37, is still missing two days after the accident.
Members of his family have declined to comment.
Davis, 35, said he was reluctant to talk about it because he wants to be respectful of Parker's family. He said he has known the restaurateur about a year-and-a-half.
The two men met through mutual acquaintances and became close while running their boats on weekends and in so-called "poker runs," in which 50 to 75 boaters travel from one place to another collecting playing cards. The boater with the best hand wins.
In 1991, Davis was given a boating citation for careless operation and fined $40, according to public records.
Davis said it was a violation for water skiing in a no-wake zone on Lake Tarpon.
Davis said he and Parker were not racing each other last Sunday; they were just running their boats at high speeds together, along with a third friend on a boat about a quarter-mile back.
Davis and his passenger, 25-year-old Gisa Bok of Tampa, were not wearing life jackets, nor were the three people on Parker's boat, authorities say.
Davis said the boats are made to go fast.
"We've been doing poker runs where we're all going 100 mph and I've never heard of a boat wrecking," he said. "Spectres are very safe boats and they're made to do that."
The custom boats were made in Clearwater by Jay Pilini, owner of Spectre Powerboats. They retail for about $320,000. Parker's boat had twin 650-horsepower engines; Davis' boat was a little slower, with twin 575-horsepower engines.
Davis said he is partners with Pilini in a commercial property. Corporate records say he is an official in J&C Real Property, along with Pilini. Pilini did not return calls for comment.
Both Parker and Davis live on the water.
Davis lives in the gated community of Bayou Club Estates off Belcher Road in Pinellas Park, in a home that sold in 1999 for $870,000.
He is president of Gift of Life Community Services, a nonprofit that provides mental health counseling services to indigent children, including foster children, in Pinellas County.
Davis "has always been committed on behalf of his agency to children," said April Putzulu, spokeswoman for Family Continuity Programs, which administers foster care programs in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
He also is an owner of Gift of Life Adoptions, a for-profit that offers adoption legal services; and Gift of Life Residential Services, a shelter for teenage girls in St. Petersburg that is funded by the state.
He said he grew up working with foster children, because his parents helped a lot of foster children. About 10 years ago he decided to start the Gift of Life agencies.
The two adoption service organizations are operated out of a gray, nondescript strip mall on Park Boulevard that Davis owns. It also houses a chiropractic office, an accident attorney, a Vietnamese coffee shop and his building contracting business, Florida First Development Corp.
Davis said contracting is his main business, and he's now involved in building an $8-million industrial park in Pinellas Park.
Davis acknowledged that racing boats is a dangerous sport but said he does not think it was irresponsible to operate the boats that fast.
"It's easy to look back now and say that, but it was a tragic accident," he said. "It's not necessarily a safe sport."
_ Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.