Intracoastal Waterway Accident Challenges Florida Rescuers

St. Johns County, FL, Fire Rescue (SJCFR) was presented with challenges it never faced before. An overloaded 22-foot Crownline Bowrider with 14 people on board rammed a moored, unoccupied tugboat on the Intracoastal Waterway about one mile north of the...


St. Johns County, FL, Fire Rescue (SJCFR) was presented with challenges it never faced before. An overloaded 22-foot Crownline Bowrider with 14 people on board rammed a moored, unoccupied tugboat on the Intracoastal Waterway about one mile north of the Palm Valley Bridge, approximately 25 miles...


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A rather complicated law of physics involving mass, acceleration, change in velocity and pound miles per second determines the force an object exerts at a specific time of impact. For example, a 10,000-pound object traveling at 40 mph that hits a brick wall and comes to a complete halt in 0.1 second exerts an impact force of 182,000 pounds. The boat, weighing approximately 7,600 pounds, with a lower rate of travel and coming to a halt in about one second would have a slightly lower impact force.

The section of waterway where the incident occurred presented no navigational difficulties. "The incident location is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway," explained Jeremy Robshaw, SJCFR public education/information officer. "In the particular area of the accident, the waterway is approximately 125 feet wide and 12 feet deep. At the time of the accident, it was dusk with clear visibility at dead low tide. The current was not a factor at the time of the accident."

U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Bobby Nash said the area does not have a speed limit, though authorities can stop speeding boats from driving recklessly. It is also not part of a manatee zone where boats are required to slow as to not leave a wake. A witness said the boat had been stopped several times by police concerned about seeing so many people aboard and whether they had sufficient life jackets.

"The initial 911 call was received by SJCFR Communications at approximately 7:21 P.M.," said Robshaw. "Following the arrival of the first apparatus on the scene at approximately 7:27 P.M., five additional ALS rescue apparatus, three from SJCFR and two from the Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department, were requested. Following the first on-scene report from Rescue 1, air transport units from Shands Hospital Trauma 1 (Jacksonville), Baptist Medical Center Life Flight (Jacksonville) and Shands Hospital Shands Care (Gainesville) were immediately dispatched. In addition, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and the FWC were dispatched to the scene. Following the initial incident, the Coast Guard and NTSB responded to assist in the investigation process." The FWC subsequently took jurisdiction of the accident scene.

"Station 1 responded with two paramedics and an ALS rescue transport, Rescue 1. Station 10 responded with a BLS engine and four personnel, Engine 10. One additional ALS rescue transport, Rescue 17, with two paramedics and a battalion chief, Battalion 1, were included in the initial call. Lieutenant Dan Joubert of Rescue 1 initially established command as per departmental policy. As the incident escalated, command was eventually transferred to Lieutenant Rick Caro of Engine 10," said Robshaw.

Tactical Options

"Upon arrival on scene, Rescue 1 was faced with a limited-access, long driveway in front of a residence under construction," said Robshaw. "They found an 80-foot unfinished dock with only the framing in place. Personnel mitigated this area much like walking on rafters in an attic, only approximately 20 feet above water. The accident scene could not be seen until after crossing the dock. The 25-foot tugboat was moored at the far end of the dock. Upon reaching the accident, personnel encountered a mass-casualty incident with 14 patients trapped 80 feet from land with the only access being the unfinished dock."

Although it has a fixed fuel tank, the boat's tank is below deck, on the center line and more aft, which prevented the boat from exploding on impact and claiming more lives. Witnesses said the boat veered slightly at the last minute, suggesting the driver saw the tug seconds before impact.

"Tactical options included the utilization of department policy with respect to mass-casualty incidents," said Robshaw. "Upon determination of the mass-casualty incident, sections were set up to include triage, treatment, transport and staging. First-arriving personnel were assigned to access and triage the victims. Additional arriving units, with the assistance of deputies from the St. Johns County Sheriff's office and civilian bystanders, began building a temporary bridge from plywood found at the construction site. Upon completion of the temporary bridge, these personnel formed a human chain allowing the victims to be moved to a treatment area. As a result of limited manpower, the same personnel assigned to access and triage victims were then assigned to treatment and then finally to transport." Arriving rescue transport apparatus were to stage on the two-lane road in front of the incident location. As a result of the limited-access driveway, staging rescue transport apparatus were backed down the driveway, provided with a patient, and directed either to an air transport unit or to a local receiving trauma facility.