Coast Guard wasn’t alerted about deadly boat crash in the Florida Keys until 20 minutes after the crash

The boat that struck a channel marker near North Key Largo on Labor Day weekend capsized, throwing all aboard into the water. This photo taken on the scene, shows the upside down vessel also had heavy damage along its starboard, or right, side. One young girl died in the wreck and another is fighting for her life.

David Goodhue

Miami Herald

The U.S. Coast Guard received the first call about a deadly boat crash off the Florida Keys about 20 minutes after the tragedy, according to a timeline released by the agency.

The vessel struck a channel marker, killing Miami-Dade County high school senior Luciana “Lucy” Fernandez and sending 14 people into the water.

Luciana “Lucy” Fernandez

Fernandez’s friend, 17-year-old Katerina Sofia Puig remains in the hospital fighting for her life. Two other girls, Coco Aguilar and Isabella Rodriguez, both 17, were also seriously injured and hospitalized. Four other people, including the boat’s operator, George Pino, 51, his wife Cecilia, 48, and 18-year-old daughter Cecilia Lianne, suffered less serious injuries.

The delay between the crash time and the Coast Guard alert could stem from how people called for help, according to the timeline and accompanying statements released Wednesday from the federal maritime rescue and law enforcement service.

A Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue boat pulls into a slip at Black Point Marina Sunday night, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022. The boat brought to shore several people injured in a boating crash earlier in the night. (David Goodhue/Miami Herald/TNS)

The agency said witnesses who responded to the crash called 911 on their cellphones instead of using marine VHF radio channel 16 — the international channel for boats in distress, which goes directly to the Coast Guard and other boaters in the area who are listening to the frequency.

According to an accident report released Tuesday by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the lead agency investigating the crash, the 29-foot Robalo center console hit the Intracoastal Waterway Marker 15 around 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

The Coast Guard received the call that the vessel was capsized and people were in the water in a shallow area of Biscayne Bay off northern Key Largo, at 6:50 p.m.

The call did not go directly to the Coast Guard. It was relayed “through a 911 dial system because the initial call was made via cellphone,” the agency said in the timeline.

The Coast Guard urges boaters to have a marine radio on their vessels and to use VHF channel 16 to call for help whenever they are in distress or danger at sea.

“It’s the most reliable means of communication on the water,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Office Nicole Groll. “We tell people cellphones are not always reliable. When underway, your radio will always work.”

Crew based at Coast Guard Sector Key West, more than 120 miles away, dispatched a patrol boat from Station Islamorada — the service’s closest base to the crash scene, but still more than 30 miles away — minutes after receiving the call.

Meanwhile, a civilian boater rescued three people from the water at 7 p.m., according to the Coast Guard. Other boaters in area responded and continued to pluck survivors from the water.

A Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue helicopter airlifted one person who was in critical condition at 7:17 p.m., the Coast Guard timeline stated.

The Coast Guard boat sent from Station Islamorada arrived at the scene at 7:48 p.m., the agency said.

“They recovered two additional people from the vessel and transferred them to [medics] at Ocean Reef at 8 p.m. local,” the Coast Guard said in its statement. By the end of the night, three other people, including Lucy Fernandez, were airlifted from the crash site.

Pino had taken his passengers to Elliott Key from Ocean Reef earlier in the day for a birthday celebration during the Labor Day weekend. They were headed back to Ocean Reef when he plowed his boat into the green Intracoastal Waterway Marker 15, which is the last marker in the channel through a shallow area of the bay called Cutter Bank.

Sources close to some of the people on the boat said a larger vessel that left the area may have contributed to the crash, either because of its wake, or because it got too close to Pino’s boat. Miami Herald news partner CBS Miami reported that Pino told rescuers that after that boat passed, “he turned to check and make sure all of the girls were OK and that’s when he hit the channel marker.”

FWC investigators declined to comment on possible causes of the accident while the agency investigates.

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