Allegheny River Jet Ski Accident Shines Light on Dangers of Recreational Vehicles

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
14 July 2014
By Yanan Wang and Michael Majchrowicz

Water scooters comprise just 8 percent of the registered boats in Pennsylvania, but in recent years they have been involved in 20 percent of reported boating injuries, according to a report the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission released.

These statistics come to light after an accident involving a 40-year-old Penn Hills man who disappeared Sunday in the Allegheny River when his water scooter capsized while circling rapidly around a pontoon boat.

He and a young boy who was riding with him on back fell in the river. The boy was pulled to safety aboard the pontoon as the man bobbed in the water, having slipped out of his unfastened life vest, South Buffalo Fire Chief Randy Brozenick said. Then the man disappeared beneath the surface.

“These [water scooter] devices — they’re agile; they’re fast — and perhaps people underestimate some of their power,” said Eric Levis, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “Here’s the thing with boats: They don’t have brakes.”

He said it is easier to fall off a water scooter than other types of boats, because of water scooters’ design, maneuverability and power.

Water scooters also are known as personal watercraft. The commission’s list of well-known water scooter brands includes Jet Ski, Sea Doo and WaveRunner. Water scooters ranked second among the most common vessel types involved in reported boat accidents nationally, the U.S. Coast Guard reported in 2013.

Mr. Levis advised caution while on the water, noting that operators of any kind of boat should “follow the rules of the road” by paying attention to other boaters and people swimming.

The Penn Hills man, whose name police are withholding, has yet to be located after two days of exhaustive searches.

Rescue units were called to the scene about 4:15 p.m. Sunday but were unable to find the man. Chief Brozenick said a team of divers began the first full day of searching about 10 a.m. Monday and continued through a steady rain. At least three other dive teams assisted. Members of the missing man’s family were present Monday afternoon as the underwater search continued.

Two cadaver dogs were loaded into two pontoons as dive teams prepared to enter the water.

Chief Brozenick said the dive teams moved forward from one point to another in what are called “line searches.” Poor underwater visibility continues to hamper efforts, leaving divers barely able to see equipment gauges and their hands stretched out in front of them. Divers also must navigate the varied grooves of the river bottom, estimated to stretch as deep as 50 feet below the surface.

Sonar technology also was used to detect any trace of submerged masses in the river.

Numerous things could cause a water scooter to capsize, said Tom Crist, waterways conservation officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. When a scooter is moving at a fast speed and it swerves or hits a big wave, the rider might lose his grip and fall.

Pennsylvania water scooter operators are required to have a Boating Safety Education Certificate, which can be obtained through a commission-approved boating course and examination. This mandatory education requirement was instituted after it was found that 36 percent of all reported boating accidents in 1999 involved at least one water scooter, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

“Personal watercrafts are unique vessels, and they require a unique type of education,” said Lauren Dunn, senior public relations manager of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association.

The organization’s Safe Rider initiative, which outlines safety recommendations for water scooter operators, is in its second year. The Safe Rider Pledge instructs riders to avoid aggressive maneuvers, evaluate weather conditions and maintain a safe distance from individuals or objects in the water.

The narrow size of most water scooters, about 4 feet wide, contributes to their susceptibility to accidents, said Fred Lipa, owner of Pittsburgh Watercraft Performance and a friend of the man who fell into the water. Mr. Lipa had last seen the victim six weeks ago, when he visited Mr. Lipa briefly at the repair shop.

The man was talkative and outgoing, Mr. Lipa said. He had just purchased a new car, but boats were his vehicle of choice. He owned a Polaris water scooter and, on occasion, borrowed his brother’‍s Yamaha WaveRunner.

“He was an experienced jet-skier,” said Mr. Lipa. “The water was definitely where he felt comfortable.”

He said water scooter riders often follow moving boats and jump the waves they create “like a motorcycle going up a ramp.”

There were probably many boats in the water when his friend disappeared. “It was an extremely nice day,” Mr. Lipa recalled.

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