August 4, 2014 at 11:44 pm

Speed, alcohol may be factors in boat crash fatalities

The crash occurred about 6:15 p.m. in the south shipping channel near Harsens Island, located about 50 miles northeast of Detroit at the south end of the St. Clair River. (Alan Block / www.sailinganarchy.com)

Harsens Island— Alan Block stopped his boat Sunday because he couldn’t believe the incident he was watching unfold.

A speedboat was going about 45-50 mph and wasn’t slowing down in the crowded southern shipping channel that divides Harsen’s Island from Canada, he said.

“I came to a stop because I knew something was going to happen,” said Block, who is a local sailboat racer and senior reporter for Sailing Anarchy.

About 200 feet from where he was sailing, a 25-foot Baja boat tried to navigate the wakes left by two boats Block estimated to be 40 feet long. One looked like a fishing vessel, the other a cabin cruiser, he said.

The Baja bounced off one wake, then another, throwing those in the boat around. It then flew into the air and came down on top of the cabin cruiser. The crash killed two people and injured three others. One was clinging to her life Monday afternoon.

Police said the 32-year-old Chesterfield Township man who was piloting the Baja was arrested on alcohol-related charges and then released. Police didn’t release his name, but he did submit to a blood test to determine alcohol levels given that police say drinking and high speed may have been factors in the collision, said Sgt. Tim Donnellon, a spokesman for the St. Clair County Sheriff’s office, which is investigating the accident.

Donnellon said the release is common and gives investigators time to interview witnesses, reconstruct the crash and await the blood results.

“We’re still piecing together the accident,” Donnellon said. “It’s a tedious process. We’re working with the prosecutor’s office. At this point we’re looking at witness statements. It’s tricky on the water.”

The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office has identified the victims as Robert Koontz, 57, of Chesterfield Township, and Nancy Axford, 68, of Winnipeg, Canada. Axford’s husband was uninjured but Koontz’s wife, who is in her 60s, was critically injured. A third unmarried couple on the cabin cruiser received minor injuries.

Marie T. Koontz, 78, who is the mother of the victim and lives in Phoenix, said her son was on the boat with his wife of 20 years, Marlene, in what was supposed to be one of their final trips of the summer on the water with friends. She said her son became a father figure to his wife’s children.

“He was a good guy,” she said. “I could always depend on him. I’m just trying to stay strong. I’m almost 79, but this is very difficult.”

Marie Koontz said her son loved fishing and the water. Ironically, she said, he talked to her recently about some friends his own age dying in their 50s.

She described him as a dutiful son who would send her cards for all occasions throughout the year accompanied with money. “I will miss that,” she said, choking back tears.

Launched 10 feet in air

There were no injuries on the Baja boat that slammed into the cabin cruiser authorities say was carrying six people.

The crash occurred about 6:15 p.m. about 50 miles northeast of Detroit at the south end of the St. Clair River.

Block said hitting the final wake before the crash launched the Baja about 10 feet into the air.

“It was completely clear of the water,” Block said. “It crashed into the top deck of the cabin cruiser and basically smashed through to the other side. It actually knocked off the upper deck, which collapsed onto the hull of the boat. I’ve lived and worked on the water my entire life, and I’ve never seen anything like this.

“It was horrible.”

According to Block, the impact threw a woman into the water.

“Myself and some other boats were looking for her,” Block said. “The body was picked up about 20 minutes later by a couple on a pontoon boat. They did CPR but to no avail.”

Another man on the cabin cruiser received a severe head injury.

“They worked on him, but they stopped pretty quickly because he was clearly dead,” Block said. “The fire chief from Algonac came on board and worked on an older woman who seemed to be in shock. She was really bad off.”

According to Block, a number of boats milled around the area before finally heading out.

The driver of the Baja wouldn’t have been able to handle the wake from the larger boats at the speed he was traveling, according to Block.

“When a little boat hits a big boat, you’re pretty much along for the ride,” Block said.

Driver of Baja arrested

Of the three people on the Baja, only the driver was arrested, Donnellon said.

“The case will be turned over to the prosecutor’s office. ... The bodies of the victims have been turned over to the medical examiner’s office, and I don’t expect a statement as to the causes of death for a few days.”

The sheriff’s department has taken possession of the boats and has them in storage while accident reconstruction experts who specialize in marine accidents continue their investigation.

“This has been one of the most deadly summers I can remember,” Donnellon said. “We had a double fatal car crash in Burtchville, the following Friday we had a fatal when someone ran a stop sign. Then a fatal motorcycle crash, a fatal car crash on a two-lane road and now a double fatal boating crash.”

Shipping traffic on the south channel was stopped for a period of time while rescue operations were underway.

Associated Press contributed.

The sheriff's department has taken possession of the boats. (Alan Block / www.sailinganarchy.com)