Boaters Clung to Capsized Boat as Long as They Could

Coast Guard Cutter William Flores. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Elgammal)
Coast Guard Cutter William Flores. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Elgammal)

MARTIN COUNTY — The boat involved in Sunday's fatal accident sank and capsized, throwing all four occupants into the water, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"They went straight out the inlet (St. Lucie Inlet Sunday morning from Stuart) and within moments of stopping, the occupants noticed water" in the rear portion of the boat when it was 1.5 miles east of Hobe Sound, said Carol Lyn Parrish, spokeswoman with the commission.

According to the commission's initial report, those aboard "attempted to remove the water by use of a bilge pump and scooping with buckets.

"At approximately 8:45 a.m. the vessel sank and capsized, ejecting all occupants into the water. The occupants were able to climb aboard the capsized vessel for several hours before being separated," the report said.

BOAT RETRIEVAL

State officials are trying again Tuesday to retrieve the boat, Parrish said.

Rough seas Monday prevented investigators from removing the overturned 24-foot boat from the surf south of the St. Lucie Inlet. "That is our priority now," Parrish said of her agency's ongoing investigation into the mishap that claimed three lives and left one man hospitalized. All were from Port St. Lucie.

Survivor Robert Stewart, 45, remained hospitalized Tuesday morning at Martin Medical Center, Stuart, in serious condition.

Officers stayed by the boat all night. Once the boat is towed in, it can be examined.

So far, the commission has confirmed only one of the occupants, Jayden Jones, 9, was wearing a life vest.

WEATHER

A small craft advisory was in effect Sunday. Winds were 16 to 22 mph and waves were up to 6 feet, according to the National Weather Service, Melbourne.

After the boat capsized, one by one, the occupants vanished, starting with the oldest, Willis Bell, 70, according to what Stewart said. Then boat owner Fernandas Jones, 51, disappeared. Stewart stayed with Jones' son on the submerged boat. But the boy slipped away, leaving Stewart alone. He was spotted by a rescue helicopter on the beach shortly after daybreak Monday as bodies were found elsewhere on the beach.

The ocean temperature was 73 degrees Sunday, low enough to drain a body's warmth, possibly leading to hypothermia, Parrish said.

There was little or no moonlight Sunday night, according to the weather service, making search efforts difficult as the U.S. Coast Guard searched using a cutter and aircraft. At first, searchers didn't know whether the boaters were in the ocean or the Indian River Lagoon. They fished in both locations during past trips. The last communication a family member had with the boaters was at 9 a.m. The call didn't indicate anything was wrong, investigators said.

The Martin County Sheriff's Office is handling the land side of the investigation: the recovery of the bodies and the survivor. That investigation will be concluded once there are results from autopsies.

The Wildlife Commission's investigation of the boat and what lead to the accident could take weeks or longer, Parrish said.

Jones worked with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office as a jail corrections officer. He was hired Oct. 27, 2014, said Palm Beach County sheriff's spokeswoman Teri Barbera.

TOP BOATING SAFETY TIPS

--Be prepared. Wear a life jacket and consider purchasing an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon or Personal Locator Beacon. Register the beacon. A radio beacon transmits GPS coordinates that can identify a person's position within minutes. For more information, go to www.safeboatingcouncil.org/saved-by-the-beacon-campaign.

--Before going out, tell someone the destination and route.

--Check the boat. Ensure that safety equipment is on board and there are adequate supplies, including fuel. If the boat has a water drain plug, make sure it is in place.

--Be aware of the surroundings. Each type of boat has its limits. Exceeding them can put boaters in danger.

--Be weather aware. Weather and water conditions can be unpredictable. Check weather reports.

--Take a boater safety course.

Source: U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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