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Causes issued in Aquia Creek boat crash

A nighttime accident in Aquia Creek that killed a Florida man resulted from not having a proper lookout, an investigator with the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries concluded.

Alcohol use was listed as the secondary cause of the May 31 crash in which John Gregory Atherly’s boat struck a channel marker, according to the Boating Investigative Report obtained by The Free Lance–Star.

A toxicology report, which would indicate Atherly’s blood-alcohol level, was not available as of Wednesday, said Game and Inland Fisheries spokesman Lee Walker. He did not know when it would be finished.

Atherly, 50, was known within the Stafford County boating community of Widewater Beach as “Stretch” because of his height. He was 6-feet, 4-inches tall, friends said.

Though his permanent residence was in Coral Springs—a community in South Florida—Atherly had been living in Stafford County while working as a government contractor on the Quantico Marine Corps Base.

For much of the past two years, he had been splitting his time between Florida—where his wife lived—and Stafford, where he had become a member of the close-knit group of boaters at Widewater Beach, friends said.

Day channel marker No. 5 at the mouth of Aquia Creek. (Courtesy of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)

Day channel marker No. 5 at the mouth of Aquia Creek. (Courtesy of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)

Atherly was operating his 19-foot Chaparral motorboat and returning from Fairview Beach in King George County that Saturday night when the boat struck a channel marker near the entrance to Aquia Creek about 10:30 p.m. Boaters typically have a person on the lookout for objects ahead in the water when traveling at night.

Though initial reports said Atherly’s boat hit channel marker No. 10, the final investigative report states that he struck marker No. 5.

The two markers have one significant difference: No. 10 is equipped with a light, whereas No. 5, as a “day” channel marker, is not.

Following the accident, several of Atherly’s friends believed his boat struck marker 10 and said its light wasn’t working, which they suggested played a role in his death.

Investigators concluded the boat struck marker No. 5 based on paint transfer, Walker said.

The boat sustained $30,000 worth of damage, which extended from the bow, along the entire starboard side, according to the Boating Investigative Report prepared by investigator Alan Hatmaker.

Atherly’s boat was traveling west from the Potomac River into Aquia Creek when it hit No. 5, Hatmaker wrote. “Upon impact, the operator’s head struck the channel marker killing him on impact.”

The Medical Examiner reached the same conclusion, listing the cause of death as blunt trauma to the head, according to Central District Administrator Frank Battle.

After the impact, Atherly’s boat “continued west into Aquia Creek for about 100 yards” before coming to rest, Hatmaker’s report states.

A 41-year-old Stafford woman who was a friend was on board with Atherly but was not seriously injured, according to friends.

IMPACT OF MARKERS

Roger Hendrick, who had rented a cottage to Atherly in 2013, said several boaters went to the scene of the crash to hold a memorial for their friend shortly after his death.

By then, they knew that Atherly’s boat struck marker No. 5 and some placed flowers on it, Hendrick said.

However, he said that the night of the accident was very dark and that by 10:30 p.m., visibility was poor.

Hendrick said if all the marker lights were working, the crash might not have occurred.

Channel marker No. 10 near the mouth of Aquia Creek in Stafford County. (Courtesy of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)

Channel marker No. 10 near the mouth of Aquia Creek in Stafford County. (Courtesy of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)

The woman who was on the boat told Hendrick that they initially missed the turn for Aquia Creek as they were traveling up the Potomac River from Fairview Beach back to Widewater Beach.

As a result, they had turned around and were heading south in the Potomac River when they entered the mouth of the creek and struck unlit marker No. 5.

Channel markers are placed in the water to help guide boaters and prevent them from running aground.

There are five markers at the mouth of Aquia Creek, including two day markers and three markers with lights, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nautical chart.

Approaching from the north, the first lit marker would be a quick-flashing red marker labeled No. 6 that would rise 15 feet above the water level.

Red markers are to be kept to the right as a boater heads home. Green markers are kept to the left.

The No. 5 day marker is green and is positioned south of No. 6. No. 10, a red marker that should be lit, is farther into Aquia Creek.

The No. 12 red lit marker is well beyond the mouth of the creek.

The Coast Guard traveled to the accident scene the next day as is standard operating procedure, Chief Warrant Officer Paul Curtis said.

Channel marker No. 12 was not working on June 1, he said.

It had been reported to the Coast Guard as unlit prior to the accident and that information had been relayed to boaters via a notice to mariners on May 27, Curtis said.

“At that point, there was nothing else reported as extinguished,” he said.

Coast Guard personnel found no problem with marker No. 10 when they arrived the morning after the accident, said Petty Officer Jasmine Mieszala.

“When they went out there to verify it, it was working,” she said.

All markers in that area have been inspected since the accident, and “since that time, everything in that area is corrected,” Curtis said.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972; pgould@freelancestar.com

 

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