There are only five state marine patrol officers watching 105,000 acres of lakes in east-central Alabama but three fatal boat crashes on Lake Martin, Lake Jordan and the Alabama River since May have two common factors — all occurred at night and alcohol may have been involved, according to Capt. Gary Buchanan, the commander of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol.
“The early indications are alcohol played a role in all three of those incidents,” Buchanan said.
There have been 25 boating fatalities statewide this year but eight have come this month and three of those were in Elmore County. Another died in Elmore County waters on Lake Martin in May.
On the night of May 3, David George Goodling, 56, of Auburn was killed when his Chris Craft was struck twice about an hour apart near the Bridge to Nowhere on Lake Martin. Buchanan said the ALEA determined a Sea Ray operated by Norman Ray Harris and Goodling’s boat collided almost head-on at approximately 8:30 p.m. A separate boat struck Goodling’s boat in the same area of the lake about an hour later, located Goodling’s boat and towed it to The Ridge Marina. The operator of the boat called 911, reported hitting Goodling’s boat, said it had significant damage from a previous crash and reported a body in the boat.
“We believe the fatality occurred at the first collision,” Buchanan said. “The second was more of a glancing blow.”
Late on July 4, Clay Jackson, 26, of Deatsville and Travis House, 17, of Marbury were killed when the 19-foot center console they were aboard was involved in a collision with a 19-foot Maxum runabout driven by Damion Bruno between 9:30 and 10 p.m. near the mouth of Weoka Creek on Lake Jordan, according to the ALEA. Their bodies were found two days later within sight of Lake Jordan Marina.
Around midnight July 13, Krista Danielle Elliott, 32, of Wetumpka was killed when the boat she was a passenger in struck a tree overhanging the Alabama River between where the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers converge and the canal to the Walter Boldin Dam, according to the ALEA.
Buchanan said none of the victims were wearing life jackets, although it may not have made any difference.
“I don’t think it would have mattered for most of those,” he said. “Most were blunt-force trauma-type things.”
With the recent waterborne deaths, there may be mounting pressure on the ALEA to hire more marine patrol officers.
There are 21 vacancies for marine patrol officers statewide that were all filled 10 to 15 years ago and the ALEA has indicated it will hire eight, Buchanan said.
“I’ve done this for 24 years,” he said. “Boating safety is important. Enforcement is important. There is value in what the marine patrol does.”
Five Alabama Marine Police officers patrolled Lake Martin before that agency was consolidated with the newly formed ALEA in 2015.
“The ideal number is four and now we have two,” Buchanan said.
Five patrol officers are responsible for the waters of east-central Alabama, including lakes Martin, Mitchell, Jordan, Eufaula and Harding, plus the Alabama, Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers.
“That’s probably 25 or 30 counties,” Buchanan said. “Lake Harding hasn’t had anyone on it in three years. We have to pull people away from other posts to go there. We had one (officer) on Smith Lake who said he was awake 30 straight hours over the Fourth of July holiday. He had fatalities.”
In 2017, state Rep. Phillip Pettus (R-Greenhill) proposed disbanding the ALEA, saying the consolidation had not saved money and in fact resulted in fewer Alabama State Troopers on the highway. At the time, then-ALEA Secretary Stan Stabler told the legislature there had been a 30% decline in troopers in the highway patrol since 2009 and asked for a $60 million increase in the budget.
“It’s just too big,” Pettus, a retired state trooper, said of the ALEA in media reports. “They’ve got too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
Buchanan sees a correlation between effective marine patrols and safer boating.
“When we look at the map and talk about shortages, we don’t have enough people to cover all the water,” he said. “People get accustomed to not seeing that patrol boat, those blue lights, and sometimes because of that lack of deterrence people do things that are more reckless, more dangerous.”
ALEA Secretary Hal Taylor requested 50 new positions in the agency’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year and indicated the new hires would put on the highways as state troopers. Taylor requested $9.8 million for the Marine Police Fund in the 2020 fiscal year.
While more marine patrol officers would help deter feckless boaters, even low-speed collisions on the water can be fatal.
“When you have a collision in a car going 25 mph, you’ve got seat belts and air bags and the cars go through crash tests so they’re engineered and built to be as safe as possible,” Buchanan said. “You’re usually going to walk away with minor injuries, a story and some soreness. Most boat crashes occur under 30 mph but there’s no safety equipment except life jackets, if you’re wearing them and if you can find them where they’re stored under a seat. When you go into the water, especially at night, and if you’re intoxicated, that’s a lethal combination.”
Unfortunately, many recreational boaters think alcohol is an enjoyable part of being on the water and think of the marine patrol as a nuisance.
“There’s a cultural thing with boating and drinking,” Buchanan said. “People joke about it — a cooler of beer, fishing and boat riding; it all goes together. People see us out there and think we’re there to keep them from having a good time.”
Buchanan said most vessel operators have state licenses and handle their boats safely at night.
“Maybe 10% don’t have a valid vessel license,” he said. “Most people have one. And not everybody who’s out on the water at night are being reckless. Most of them are boating safely.”
The dangerous ones don’t know what they are doing or are careless.
“I worked on Logan Martin (Lake) the Fourth of July,” Buchanan said. “They had a fireworks show and there were several hundred boats. We stopped people for various (navigation) light violations. We stopped people in a brand new boat who didn’t have any idea which switches did what or how to turn the lights on. At the same time, we stopped people in older boats who didn’t have proper lights. There was one pontoon boat with two families and three or four children less than 5 years old, maybe 15 people on that boat. Their nav lights weren’t working and he had taken an LED light and hung it on the back of the boat and had some type of temporary light on the front of the boat. He had the battery disconnected. I told him, ‘You picked the worst night possible to come out here with patched-together lights’ and his response was, ‘We just wanted to see the fireworks.’”
Typical summer patrols on Lake Martin concentrate on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays anywhere from 9 to 12 hours each day, according to Buchanan.
“We’re limited to 40-hour weeks so we’re focused on weekends,” Buchanan said. “Most people are out between 3 and 6 o’clock.”
But when tragedies occur, there is no clock for the marine patrol and there is no worse feeling than the helplessness of searching for the dead.
“You wish you could do more,” Buchanan said. “I can’t imagine being in their shoes, thinking about a loved one you can’t find.”