Feds: Coast Guard Boat Speed Caused Fatal Calif. Crash

By ELLIOT SPAGAT | July 14, 2011

A Coast Guard vessel’s dangerous speed likely caused a collision that killed an 8-year-old boy and seriously injured four other people aboard a pleasure boat during a holiday parade, the National Transportation Safety Board found Tuesday.

The board also faulted the Coast Guard for lack of supervision in the December 2009 crash that occurred when a crew was rushing to a grounded sailboat that was in no danger of taking on water in San Diego Bay.

The 33-foot Coast Guard vessel was going as fast as 42 knots – or 48 mph – when it struck the pleasure boat shortly after a fireworks show in the bay crowded with kayaks, canoes and other watercraft, investigators found.

The Coast Guard’s electronic equipment failed to capture the precise speed, but investigators said it was going at least 19 knots, still more than twice the highest recommended speed of 8 knots under the conditions, the NTSB said.

A 12-second video taken within 100 yards of the crash clocked the vessel at 42 knots, and eyewitnesses said it maintained that speed.

The boat’s driver and a crew member estimated lower speeds.

NTSB board members, meeting in Washington, were sharply critical of the Coast Guard command for lack of oversight of its small boat operations.

“I find it ironic that the Coast Guard is in the position of evaluating all of the other folks in the boating community to determine if they are complying with the rules, but then when they are in a position, they are essentially saying, Do as I say, not as I do,” Chairwoman Deborah Hersman told the board. “At the end of the day, the Coast Guard has to take some responsibility for this.”

In an interview, Hersman said crews likely operated at that speed regularly in San Diego. She was troubled that none of the crew members alerted the driver to the hazard.

“That’s a demonstration that there’s a culture of acceptance that that type of behavior is OK,” she said. “There was no need for them to be going that fast.”

Dan Dewell, a Coast Guard spokesman, said his agency looked forward to reviewing the NTSB findings and recommendations in its investigation of a “rare and tragic event.”

The Coast Guard is doing its own investigation, which has not been completed.

Mike Neil, an attorney who represents the family of 8-year-old Anthony DeWeese in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the federal government, said the NTSB findings were “right on the money” for faulting the Coast Guard chain of command.

“These young Coast Guard men and women were put out on these boats without adequate supervision and training and they are also, in a sense, victims,” Neil said. “The members of that crew are going to have to carry the memory of the death of this boy for the rest of their lives.”

The Coast Guard charged four of the five crew members last year with crimes ranging from involuntary manslaughter to dereliction of duty. The driver, Petty Officer 3rd Class Paul Ramos, was sentenced in military court to three months in the brig for dereliction of duty, while two others received lesser punishments. Charges were dismissed against the fourth member.

The Coast Guard vessel landed atop a 26-foot SeaRay boat that had 13 people from three families aboard. NTSB investigators said Alan DeWeese, Anthony’s father, was driving at a top speed of 4 knots with his lights on at the annual nighttime parade that features boats festooned with lights.

The driver and two other crew members refused to speak with investigators, leaving questions about why the boat went so fast. The sailboat operator had told the Coast Guard that he was not in distress and would wait for high tide to get afloat.

“Why did the rescuers get so focused on getting to their destination that they took unnecessary risks to get there?” the NTSB’s Hersman asked. “Unfortunately, our investigators have seen unnecessary and unsafe actions too many times when the zeal to do good offsets sound decision-making.”

NTSB investigators found no evidence of drug or alcohol use by the crew.

Crew members used personal cell phones for voice calls and text messages before the crash, distracting them from lookout duties, the NTSB said. Still, phone use was not ruled a cause of the collision.

At his sentencing in March, Ramos asked for forgiveness from jurors and the DeWeese family.

“I live with so much remorse for what happened to all the children and adults that night and the loss of life,” he said.

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