Boating crash victim’s friends fault buoy lights
In the boating community of Widewater Beach, John Gregory Atherly was known as “Stretch.”
It was a nod to his height of 6 feet, 4 inches, friends said.
He had worked for the past two years as a government contractor on the Quantico Marine Corps Base but lived in Coral Springs, Fla., with his wife.
In Virginia, the 50-year-old had become part of the close-knit group of Stafford County boaters who live along Aquia Creek.
That community has been reeling since Saturday night and asking whether his death in a boating accident could have been prevented. Atherly was killed when his boat struck a channel marker.
Roger Hendrick met Atherly last year and rented him one of the cottages on his beachfront property from March to August 2013.
“He always had a smile or a joke,” Hendrick said. “He was really easy to get along with.”
When Atherly’s government contract ended last year, Hendrick rented the cottage to someone else, but Atherly still kept his 19-foot Chaparral boat at Hendrick’s dock.
When Atherly returned for his next round of contract work, he resumed his friendships.
Saturday night, Hendrick and his wife were enjoying an outdoor fire on the beach at their property and were expecting Atherly to join them by 9 o’clock.
Atherly had driven there earlier in the day, and about 1 p.m. had left on his boat with a few friends to get lunch at Fairview Beach in King George County, Hendrick said.
About two hours later, Atherly returned with one of the men who needed to go to work.
Atherly left again about 4:15 p.m., heading back to Fairview Beach, which is about a 15-minute trip down the Potomac River from the Widewater peninsula.
John Zorich also lives at Widewater Beach and said the boaters routinely take trips to Fairview Beach and that Rick’s on the River or Tim’s II at Fairview were the normal gathering spots.
He saw Atherly at Rick’s that Saturday afternoon.
He said it wasn’t unusual for people to consume alcohol while dining at the restaurants, but he said they were careful about safety and either had a designated person pilot the boat, waited a few hours before heading out or slept on the boat overnight to maintain safety.
It was about dusk last Saturday when Atherly and a 41-year-old Aquia Harbour woman, who was a friend, headed back to Widewater Beach, Hendrick said after speaking with the woman.
With the sun down and just a sliver of moonlight, she told him they initially overshot Aquia Creek.
That meant they were approaching the creek from the north after turning around.
Buoys are placed in the water to help guide boaters and prevent them from running aground. But Hendrick and others said lights on at least two buoys along Aquia Creek—channel markers No. 10 and 12—were out that night and had been for some time.
Jimmy Franklin, managing partner of Hope Springs Marina on Aquia Creek, said he contacted the Coast Guard about six weeks earlier to report the lights out on two buoys, including No. 12.
And on May 27, the day after Memorial Day, Widewater Beach resident Brian Ballard said he contacted the Coast Guard about the same light.
Hendrick had noticed the missing lights on 10 and 12 in his travels.
“I made a trip Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend and the lights were out,” he said.
He didn’t report it because others had, but said he avoided going out at night after that because of the risk.
“Everybody you talk to knew they were out,” Zorich said of the lights on 10 and 12. “There aren’t many markers out there. The two critical ones were out—critical because they were at the opening to the creek.”
To operate his boat, Atherly either stood or had one knee on the seat, Zorich said.
Heading back to Hendrick’s dock, Atherly had entered Aquia Creek from the Potomac River and was navigating in the dark when his boat struck channel marker No. 10, killing him and injuring the woman.
FINDING THE CAUSE
Authorities initially reported that Atherly was heading out of the creek toward the Potomac River, but Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries spokesman Lee Walker corrected that on Wednesday after reviewing a preliminary report.
Results of the investigation are not expected for a few weeks, and results of an autopsy were not available Wednesday, Walker said.
He said he could not comment on the status of the channel markers until the investigation is complete.
The Coast Guard also declined to comment. Petty Officer John Lindbergh, a Coast Guard spokesman, said Virginia officials are leading the investigation and the condition of the aids in the water is part of the probe so he could not answer questions about the markers and reports made about them.
However, Franklin, Zorich and boater Ira Summerhill said Coast Guard personnel were on Aquia Creek checking the channel markers on Sunday.
Franklin said he saw them repairing marker 10 and checking all of the others and said he commented to one of the men out of frustration.
“I told him, ‘It’s a shame that somebody’s got to get killed to get you up here to fix these lights,’” Franklin said.
Zorich said he saw someone climbing down the ladder of marker 10 about 2:30 p.m. and couldn’t say what he was doing but said he blamed Atherly’s death on the absence of lighting on the marker he struck.
“I noted all spring they’ve been out,” he said. “I’d be shocked if somebody could prove the lights were on.”
But while Zorich wants answers and is looking for ways to ensure another tragedy doesn’t happen, the pain of Atherly’s death runs deep for the 30 or so people who make up the tight-knit community along Widewater Beach.
“It’s much more than a neighborhood,” Zorich said. “It’s more like a family. That’s why it hurts.”
“I only knew him 1½ years but he was one of my best friends,” Hendrick said. “He was a really great guy. I’m going to miss him.”
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972