Alabama Law Enforcement Agency statistics show accidents on the state’s rivers and lakes have claimed 25 lives through the first 6½ months of the year, the most in more than two decades.
With the season not over, it's the most Alabama boating fatalities since 1998, according to Lt. Mark Fuller, commander of the central district ALEA Marine Patrol.
The Marine Patrol said a dozen boating accidents resulted in six deaths statewide during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. A 26-year-old Troy woman, Kelsey Nicole Starling, is missing and presumed dead following a collision involving two Decatur boaters about 10 p.m. July 4 in the Rock Creek area of Smith Lake.
ALEA investigators said Starling was a passenger on a 2012 Mastercraft boat operated by William Jackson Fite, 23, a Decatur native who lives in Atlanta. Fite has been charged with boating under the influence, a misdemeanor. The other vessel involved in the collision, a pontoon boat, was operated by Jodi Wallace Suggs, 50.
Fuller said alcohol consumption has played a large role in the majority of the fatal boating accidents this year.
“First of all, life jackets do save lives,” he said. “And if you are going to drink and operate a boat, do it conservatively or have a designated or sober operator. When alcohol is in the mix, people make impaired judgments sometimes.”
ALEA statistics show 68 boating accidents have been reported this year. In all of 2018, 17 people were killed in 75 accidents on the water. Twenty-one years ago, in 1998, 32 people were killed across the state in boating accidents. ALEA reported an all-time high 55 boating deaths in 1972.
“For whatever the reason, the numbers are up this year,” Fuller said. “We have officers on all the lakes and rivers, but some lakes are large areas to cover and you’ve got to be at the right place at the right time.”
About 20 search-and-rescue agencies were working through Friday to locate and recover Starling’s body in Smith Lake, the deepest in Alabama, with depths reaching more than 250 feet in some sections. The lake was created in 1961 when Alabama Power Co. erected an earthen dam on the Black Warrior River.
On Friday afternoon, ALEA announced it had suspended the search.
"There are some search operations planned for the future, but we will no longer have personnel searching every day," said ALEA Marine Patrol Sgt. Chad Pate. "Obviously this did not have the outcome that we had hoped for. Many organizations and agencies have worked hard over the last 15 days. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Starling family."
ALEA Marine Patrol said the Smith Lake case remains under investigation.
Fuller and other state and local authorities said night boating presents unique challenges to operators.
If you plan on being on the water at night this summer, officials said you should never boat alone, make sure the boat’s lights are all working and always wear your life jacket.
“First and foremost, you need to know the water, know the river, know the area,” said Tony Weikert, treasurer and former president of the Morgan County Rescue Squad. “Know where the channels are and where the obstructions are.”
He said it is unlawful not to have the boat’s lights on at night. “Make sure all of your lights are operational and that everybody is wearing a life jacket at all times.”
A disabled boat at night presents additional obstacles for rescuers, Weikert said.
He said mechanical failure is the No. 1 reason rescue units are called to assist on the water.
"The motor has quit running for some reason,” he said. “A dead battery, running out of gas. We always advise boaters to try out their boat before they actually go on the water. Make sure it’s running, know how much gas they have. People run down the river for 45 minutes or an hour and don’t have enough gas to get back.”
Weikert said those boating at night should inform other people where they might be so if there are problems, rescuers will know where to begin searching.
“Never boat alone, either,” he said. “Always have a partner. You can’t see much out there at night. Having somebody else looking will be a help.”
Pate said night boaters should not assume other drivers are looking out for boat traffic.
“Be defensive. Be on the lookout for other boaters who may not see you coming,” Pate said. “Slowing down when on the water at night is always a good choice, too. It’s hard to see out there. Make sure your lights are on when you are on the water.”
Officials also suggested that nighttime boaters:
• Carry flashlights and glow sticks. They suggested passengers wear glow sticks on a lanyard so if someone falls overboard they can be easily seen.
• Reduce ambient light on board to be able to better see the open water.
• Use a chart plotter (GPS) to help navigate in the dark.
• Avoid getting too close to other vessels and obstacles in the water.