Allegheny River Jet Ski Accident Shines Light on Dangers of
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
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
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
“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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