Woman Training To Be Firefighter Dies In Virginia Rescue Boat Crash

Elisa Escalante wanted to be a firefighter, so when the call came to work a Friday rescue shift on the Potomac River, she answered.

Escalante was thrown from an Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire and Rescue boat when it hit a river marker near Freestone Point.

"They called her so she could work with them," said Wilfredo Escalante of his 20-year-old sister.

"It was what she wanted to do. She was going to be a firefighter. She died doing what she loved to do," Wilfredo Escalante, 26, of Woodbridge said.

Elisa Escalante and OWL volunteers, Roger Donais, 35 and Stewart Young, 24, were on the way back to the dock at the end of their shift when the boat hit the piling at 11:42 p.m., said Rick DuFlocq, OWL spokesman.

She was pronounced dead at Potomac Hospital shortly after midnight.

Although Elisa Escalante was not yet a member of the department, she was on board as a "ride-along" to gain volunteer firefighter and rescue experience.

Stewart was also thrown from the boat in the accident. He was flown to Washington Hospital Center with a broken wrist. Donais was flown to Inova Fairfax with a fractured pelvis and head injuries, DuFlocq said.

The Prince William Police Department and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will investigate the accident.

The police department will keep the boat until the investigation is complete, DuFlocq said.

Wilfredo Escalante went to the river Friday to look at the accident site and said he couldn't understand how the crew missed seeing the marker.

"These are big poles. Big signs," he said, "There had to be plenty of warning. You can't miss it."

"You go to the park and you look at it and say, 'Oh my goodness; how did they miss that?" Wilfredo Escalante said.

"They had to be speeding. If they were going slow, they would have been OK," he said.

The National Weather Service, Sterling Offices, said the moon was a sliver Saturday night and conditions in the area were hazy.

DuFlocq said everything is reduced to blacks and shades of gray at night on the river and people can be easily thrown from even a slow-moving open boat.

"There is still some question about which one the boat really hit," DuFlocq said of the many markers in that part of the river near Leesylvania State Park.

The boat operator has discretion to evaluate conditions on the river and decide whether or not to use the headlights, DuFlocq said.

"They wouldn't have been running dark," he said.

Still, DuFlocq said, river navigation on a dark night is difficult.

"Anything that's a significant distance in front of you could literally disappear into the horizon. You've got dark water, you've got trees along the river bank and you could be on top of something like that before you even know it," he said.

"It doesn't take much, DuFlocq said of the speed needed to eject passengers from a boat.

"Even if they're doing 10 to 15 mph and all of a sudden come to a grinding halt ... it's going to be traumatic," DuFlocq said.

"I'm sure they'll look at the damage and try to ascertain what the speed of the boat was. The operator will be able to tell them what speed he thought he was doing.

The 22-foot Boston Whaler, with an enclosed center control console, and equipped with headlights, overhead search lights, twin outboard motors, personal flotation devices and a global positioning system was damaged beyond all repair in the accident, DuFlocq said.

"From what I understand the marker ripped into the boat a good 10 or 12 feet, almost to the console itself," said of the fiberglass boat.

Volunteers receive extensive training before they are certified to work on the water and Donais had considerable personal experience on the Potomac as well as department training," DuFlocq said.

"Knowledge of the river is no guarantee that you're not going to hit something," DuFlocq said.

"We don't put anybody out on the water without an in-house boat course that lasts several weekends," DuFlocq said.

The volunteer rescue crew worked during the holiday to fulfill a commitment to the Council of Governments, DuFlocq said.

"We have responsibility to cover the waterways all the way up to the District," he said.

Donais called dispatch as soon as the boat hit the marker.

"The 911 call originated from Mr. Donais himself. He called it in after they had stopped," DuFlocq said.

"A pleasure boat in the area got to them first," he said.

Helicopters and ambulances met the victims on shore at Leesylvania State Park, DuFlocq said.

Hundreds of people visited the Escalante home on Florida Avenue in Woodbridge on Saturday. "The department extends its sympathies and really feels sad about this," DuFlocq said, "We can replace a boat and those guys will heal, but they've got a daughter who was 20 years old."

"What can I tell you," Wilfredo Escalante said. "She was the most beautiful girl. One day she was here and then the next day she was gone."

"It is a big loss for the entire family," said his father Antonio Escalante.

"We are so sad," the 58-year-old said.