For rescuers and survivors, the first frantic minutes after a deadly boat collision on Biscayne Bay seemed to play out like hours.
A nurse aboard a sailboat that was the first craft on the scene gave mouth-to-mouth to one man clinging to life while waiting in frustration for help that didn’t come in time.
“He had a light, faint pulse. It was on and off,” said Fritzie Ortiz, the nurse who lept from that sailboat onto a sinking, battered powerboat to aid Jason Soleimani. “He probably could have made it.”
Ortiz and others aboard the sailboat provided the first detailed account Tuesday of the harrowing aftermath of the July Fourth wreck. They described a chaotic scramble to help by fellow boaters and assorted marine authorities. Their descriptions of the rescue effort were confirmed by recordings of emergency radio transmissions and one survivor.
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“Our family was shattered in a matter of minutes,” said Lynda Hanono, a 52-year-old survivor who suffered a broken nose. “It did feel like forever. But you don’t know. When you go into panic, you don’t know how long it was.”
With the dead and living thrown into the water and splayed out across boat decks, rescue crews searched the bay for the more than 20 passengers aboard three boats involved in the crash. The injured screamed for help in the dark waters, Ortiz told the Miami Herald. Marine radio traffic that night captured several boaters frantically calling for assistance. State and local rescue crews reported performing CPR on at least three victims.
But by the following afternoon, four would be confirmed dead in one of the worst recreational boating accidents in South Florida history: Victoria Dempsey, 20; Andrew Garcia, 23; Kelsie Karpiak, 24; and Soleimani, 23. Another three were seriously injured.
Allan Sabatier and his six passengers, who were heading south in a 36-foot Hunter sailboat after watching fireworks, were the first to fathom the scale of devastation of the collision off Dinner Key.
Sabatier, an executive with Del Monte Fresh Produce, said he was leisurely motoring toward Paradise Point marina where he anchors his sailboat when he heard “a whack” about 100 yards away. When he looked up, he saw one boat speeding away from another, and then two flares go up.
Sabatier said he turned on his radio to issue “Mayday” calls. His passengers — his son, his son’s girlfriend and two other couples in their late 20s — strained in the dark to see what happened. Two powerboats had collided: A 32-foot Contender with five aboard had T-boned a 36-foot Carrera.
“We didn’t think much of it until we heard kids crying and people yelling ‘help,’ and we saw someone in the ocean that fell off from the Contender,” said Ortiz, a nurse visiting the Sabatiers from the San Francisco area. “Then we saw tons of blood in the boat ”
When they pulled closer, they saw Soleimani lying on the deck of the Carrera, which had a gaping gash in its right side and was taking on water. Three men on the sailboat grabbed the foundering boat, pulling it close so survivors, all members of the Hanono family, could climb to safety.
They also threw a life jacket to a young girl who’d been thrown from the Contender into the water, where she was yelling for help. When they pulled her up, they say she began screaming: “I don’t know this family! I don’t know these people!”
With the Hanono family on the sailboat, Devon Sabatier’s girlfriend, Sheena Nicholl, took the two youngest survivors, girls age 5 and 2, into a cabin to shield them from the carnage. Above, witnesses said their mother, Dayanara Arias, was vomiting and fading in and out of consciousness from a head injury.
Nearby, the captain of a third boat also struck by the aimlessly circling Contender called for help. Sabatier also was still working the radio, calling for assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard and marine patrols responding to the crash.
“Mayday! Mayday! I see your flashing lights. You’re going the wrong way,” he said frantically in recorded transmissions as boats chased after the Contender, still unmanned and circling.
With Sabatier on the radio, Ortiz and friend Liliana Cabrera boarded the sinking Carrera to check on Soleimani. Authorities had previously reported he was likely killed on impact, but Ortiz told the Herald he was still alive, if barely.
Aided by the glow of flashlights and flares, Ortiz said she began performing mouth-to-mouth, which was difficult because Soleimani was bleeding badly from a cut near his mouth and choking on blood. Cabrera, who also has CPR training, was pumping his chest.
Allan Sabatier continued to radio for help: “Coast Guard. Coast Guard. One person is severely injured out here. We’re not moving, we’re stationary. The boat you’re chasing is the one that hit this boat.”
Sabatier acknowledged Tuesday that it was difficult to tell the difference between rescue boats in the darkness. Members of a tow crew also told WFOR-CBS4 that their boat arrived in moments and they hopped aboard the Contender and killed its engine.
Back on the Carrera, Ortiz and Cabrera continued performing CPR on Soleimani. At one point, they say the girl rescued from the Contender — either Catherine Payan or Samantha Rolph, who had also suffered serious injuries — jumped on board and tried to help.
“Everyone contributed their parts, but [rescuers] didn’t get there, it felt like, until forever,’’ Ortiz said. “It probably took 10 or 15 minutes.”
The ordeal left Ortiz and friends feeling like more could have been done. They stressed that they weren’t pointing fingers, but the first boat to show up was a police boat and she said officers aboard weren’t able to help Soleimani. The Miami-Dade Fire Rescue union also has questioned whether there were enough rescue crews on the bay that night.
Lynda Hanono thanked the sailboat crew in an interview Tuesday with the Herald. She confirmed that they sheltered her granddaughters and tried to save Soleimani. But she didn’t share their concerns about rescue efforts.
“He’s gone whether he died there or an hour later,” she said. “He was sitting on the right side in the front seat, in front of the console and the boat hit him.”
Jorge Pino, a spokesman for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is leading the investigation, said Tuesday that he had heard about efforts by the sailboat crew.
He defended the response, saying authorities were dealing with multiple boats, multiple injuries, knocked-out boaters and “hundreds of boats in the bay swerving around casing wake and more havoc.”
“Nobody appreciates the chaotic nature of this case,” he said. “This is the worst of the worst that you could fathom. And for our guys to work the way they did under the conditions they did, to me they’re heroes.”
Investigators continue to look into the crash. Authorities say they found evidence of alcohol aboard the Contender, which struck the other boats, but won’t know if alcohol was a factor until receiving the results of toxicology tests.
Miami Herald staff writer Sue Cocking and writer Emma Court contributed to this story.