MARTIN COUNTY — State officials have recovered the boat at the center of an investigation into a fatal accident Sunday south of the St. Lucie Inlet, said Amy Moore, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Rough seas kept a commission contractor from recovering the 24-foot boat that sank and capsized, tossing out four people about 1 1/2 miles east of Hobe Sound around 9 a.m. Sunday. Three Port St. Lucie residents, including a 9-year-old boy drowned, according to preliminary autopsy reports. The survivor, Robert Stewart, 55, of Port St. Lucie, remains hospitalized.
The boat was pulled out of the surf at 2 a.m. Wednesday and brought to Sandsprit Park. Then it was taken to a commission evidence compound in West Palm Beach, where it will be examined for clues as to what happened, Moore said.
For the last two days, the boat has been at the edge of the surf south of inlet, where it was pounded against the sand and shells. Moore said investigators are good at distinguishing those marks from what may have happened to the boat when it sank and overturned more than a mile out in the ocean. It was buoyant enough to stay on the surface.
The three deaths are attributed to accidental drowning, said Christine Weekes, administrative manager of the District 19 Medical Examiner's Office. Toxicology test results could take up to eight weeks.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said there's no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. "Everything in this case points to a tragic accident," he said.
Drowned in the accident was the boat's captain, Fernandas Jones, 51, a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office corrections deputy. His son, Jayden Jones, 9, died, as well as his stepfather, Willis Bell, 70.
Jones' cousin is the lone survivor. Stewart works for the state Department of Children and Families. Wednesday, he was listed in serious condition at Martin Medical Center, Stuart, according to hospital spokesman Scott Samples.
The commission's initial understanding of the accident came after interviewing Stewart.
The boaters went out the St. Lucie Inlet Sunday morning. Within moments of stopping to fish, the occupants noticed water in the rear portion of the boat, said commission spokeswoman Carol Lyn Parrish.
They attempted to remove the water by using a bilge pump and scooping with buckets.
"At approximately 8:45 a.m., the vessel sank and capsized, ejecting all occupants into the water," according to the commission's initial report. "The occupants were able to climb aboard the capsized vessel for several hours before being separated."
The last communication a family member had with the boaters was by cellphone at 9 a.m. The call didn't indicate anything was wrong, investigators said. Investigators continue to look into what happened and when it happened, Parrish said.
After the boat capsized, one by one, the occupants vanished, starting with the oldest, Bell, according to what Stewart told investigators. Then boat owner Fernandas Jones, 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.
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.
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.
So far, the FWC has confirmed only Jayden was wearing a life vest. He was a third-grade student in the St. Lucie County public school system, according to Kerry Padrick, chief communications officer for the St. Lucie School District.
Snyder said the bodies of Fernandas Jones and Bell didn't have life jackets on, but said investigators couldn't rule out the possibility that they had been on and somehow came off.
An account has been set up at BankUnited for those died in Sunday's boating incident. Donations will help pay for funeral and other expenses.
The name on the account is "Fish on Jones." The bank has several branches on the Treasure Coast.
The account was set up by Rozanne "Roxy" Brown. Brown is a friend of the Jones family.
Brown said the family is working on funeral arrangements.