Boy killed when USCG vessel hits recreational boat in holiday parade

A child was killed when a U.S. Coast Guard law-enforcement vessel struck a small pleasure boat during a holiday parade in San Diego Bay.

Federal and local agencies are investigating the cause of the collision at 1745 on Dec. 20, 2009, in the bay’s West Basin, west of Harbor Island. A Coast Guard special purpose craft-law enforcement, or SPC-LE, was responding to a reported grounding when it struck the recreational boat, killing an 8-year-old boy and injuring five other people, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

Witnesses reported that the Coast Guard boat’s speed was at least 30 mph.

“On Sunday, Dec. 20, a collision between a Sector San Diego-based 33-foot boat and a 24-foot Sea Ray occurred in the vicinity of a holiday boat parade,†Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said on his blog. “Despite the best efforts of rescue crews, an 8-year-old boy on the Sea Ray tragically died from injuries sustained during the collision.â€

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB, said the weather was clear at the time. The 2003 Sea Ray contained 13 people from three families who were watching the annual San Diego Parade of Lights. The Coast Guard boat was westbound, while the pleasure boat was almost stationary. Several other boaters witnessed the crash, which occurred 300 to 400 feet from shore amid several anchored and moving vessels.

“That (recreational) boat was moving at a relatively slow speed, as were the other boats,†Knudson said. “We have reports that the Coast Guard boat was moving quite fast, quite quickly.â€

The boy who was killed was the son of the operator of the Sea Ray, said Michael Neil, the family’s attorney. Witnesses reported that the Coast Guard vessel was traveling at 30 to 40 mph, Neil said.

“It’s a huge channel and there was all kinds of room, and there was no reason to be speeding like that, and there were no lookouts,†Neil said.

“My client was at idle speed, and all lights were on, including the stern light,†he said. “He heard the Coast Guard boat approaching from behind. He looked over his shoulder and saw the Coast Guard boat bearing down on him. … My client realized that they were going to be hit, and the Coast Guard boat was not going to veer off, and he hit it full throttle and turned as hard as he could to the right.â€

Neil said the maneuver, only seconds before impact, caused less of the Sea Ray’s port side to be exposed and probably prevented a greater loss of life. Six adults and seven children were aboard.

“The Coast Guard boat came over the top in the back,†the attorney said. “But for that evasive action, I think everybody is convinced that we would have had more dead and more serious injuries. That Coast Guard boat would have made a direct hit.â€

The boy who died had been sitting at the stern. The operator of the Coast Guard boat was 21 years old, Neil said.

The Coast Guard public affairs staff in San Diego referred questions about the incident to Coast Guard headquarters, which didn’t respond to phone calls.

The 825-hp SPC-LE, with a top speed of 60 mph, is a triple-engine speedboat developed to chase go-fast boats used in illegal activities, including drug smuggling.

NTSB investigators have interviewed at least two of the five Coast Guard crew. Investigators are reviewing their training records and the operational history of their vessel.

“Two at this point have declined to be interviewed,†Knudson said in late January. “We are trying to get information from the navigation systems on the Coast Guard vessel, and we will use that to try to determine the time and speed and position.â€

Neither agency commented on whether decorative lights on any of the boats may have diminished the Coast Guard crew’s ability to see. Following a Dec. 5 collision involving a Coast Guard boat and a tour boat in a Charleston, S.C., holiday boat parade, the Coast Guard issued a safety alert warning boaters not to install decorative lights that obscure navigation lights.

The Coast Guard crew passed drug tests, Knudson said. The San Diego Harbor Police also are investigating, along with the Coast Guard.

“As an emergency response and law-enforcement agency, we must continually earn and maintain the confidence and trust of the boating public and the communities we serve,†Coast Guard District Commander Rear Adm. Joseph Castillo said a few days after the incident. “A tragic incident such as Sunday’s crash can shake the public’s confidence and erode their trust. So it is important that we find out, share and act on what happened. And we will do that.â€

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff