With National Safe Boating Week underway, authorities are stressing caution after a jet ski accident on the Ohio River Sunday left one dead and another injured.
Melissa Mason, 24, of Aliquippa and Kevin Ludwig, 26, of Robinson Township were both rushed to Heritage Valley Sewickley hospital shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday. They had ridden a jet ski over a 10-foot dam and were sucked into the current.
Ludwig was treated and released before 7 p.m. while Mason was pronounced dead at a Pittsburgh hospital, according to Lawrence P. Furlong, assistant supervisor of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Bureau of Law Enforcement.
With Memorial Day—the official start of boating season—quickly approaching, the Fish and Boat Commission, along with the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are hoping to remind the public about safe recreational boating.
The tragedy at the Dashields Lock and Dam, across the river from Edgeworth and Sewickley, came a day after the May 19 start of National Safe Boating Week, which encourages responsible boating. On Monday, the trapped jet ski bobbed up and down in the dam's current, a physical reminder of the potential dangers that await.
Across the nation, there were more than 4,580 boating-related accidents in 2011 resulting in more than 750 fatalities last year, the Coast Guart reports.
Col. William Graham, commander of the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said a kayaker was also killed Sunday at the Allegheny Reservoir in Warren, PA. The kayaker wasn’t wearing a life jacket, he said.
Furlong said he can’t recall the last time there was an accident at the Dashields dam, though he said there have been several over the years at various dams, particularly the Highland Park dam.
Furlong said Ludwig was operating the jet ski and Mason was a passenger when the two went over an approximately 10-foot drop at the dam and got sucked into the current.
The 70-year-old gated dam, the only fixed-crest type still in service on the Ohio River, is basically a concrete wall across the river. The wall keeps the channel deep enough for navigation, but is tough for small boaters to see because the top of the concrete, or crest, is covered with flowing water.
Officials said Ludwig ignored warning signs posted along the river as the jet ski headed downstream. Several white and orange pillar buoys and painted signs scream “Danger!” as a warning to boats and watercrafts closely approaching the dam.
Dave Sneberger, chief of the Locks and Dams branch, said his crew at Dashields is consistently busy with towboats and didn’t see the jet ski go over the dam.
A family who happened to be fishing in the area heard the woman scream as the jet ski went over the dam. They pulled the two out of the water.
“They risked their lives,” Sneberger said.
Furlong couldn’t say at this point if alcohol was a contributing factor in Sunday's accident. Ludwig submitted to a blood test at the hospital and was interviewed by Allegheny County homicide detectives, he said. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's office ruled Mason's death an accidental drowning.
Furlong said officials continue to investigate and charges could be filed. Boating-related charges can range from negligent boat operation all the way up to homicide.
U.S. Coast Guard Commander Richard Timme said it’s the Coast Guard’s mission to promote safe recreational boating and there is even a volunteer Coast Guard auxiliary exists for this purpose, he said.
“To have this happen at the beginning of the season… it’s frustrating as a safety professional on the water,” Timme said. “Once again we’re talking about a fatality on the rivers.”
Jeff Hawk, public affairs officer of the Army Corps of Engineers, said it’s important for boaters learn about the rivers they're navigating before going out on the water.
“Resources are out there to minimize the risk,” Hawk said.
Do you boat in the Pittsburgh rivers? What advice do you have for other boaters? Tell us in the comments.