In a novel move, state troopers who specialize in vehicle accident analysis are attempting to reconstruct a pair of May 1 boat collisions on Lake Murray in which four people died.
The effort to create a re-enactment of a crash on water using techniques common for those on roads is a first for South Carolina.
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Officials at the state Department of Natural Resources asked the S.C. Highway Patrol to get involved “because of the severity” of the two collisions involving four boats, state Natural Resources spokesman Lt. Robert McCullough said.
The deaths of two women and two men in separate collisions combined for the deadliest weekend on the 47,500-acre lake in a decade.
State officials are weighing whether to seek unspecified criminal charges in each of the crashes.
With no skid marks to measure in water accidents, troopers are using computerized lasers on the damaged watercraft to make an animated reproduction of each collision, officials said. The images are loaded onto a computer and set in motion.
“It will give us a better picture,” McCullough said. “It also will confirm or deny testimony.”
Four Natural Resources investigators have talked with an unknown number of boaters who said they saw the crashes. Nine boaters in the collisions survived.
McCullough declined to say whether witness accounts vary widely.
State Public Safety Department director Mark Keel, a veteran law enforcement officer whose agency oversees the Highway Patrol, is uncertain whether a similar re-enactment has been tried and has worked in other boat collisions outside South Carolina.
Doing it for the lake collisions is a challenge, but the process relies on technology similar to that employed for road crashes, he said.
“We’re trying to help DNR all we can,” Keel said.
Accident reconstruction also can use vehicle debris as a tool, but it’s unclear whether any was collected in the crashes. It’s also unclear whether any spots where debris might have been found are marked for state Highway Patrol investigators to use in reconstruction.
State officials remain tight-lipped about the investigations.
DNR denied a request by The State newspaper under the state Freedom of Information law to review incident reports in the crashes on the grounds that making the information public could interfere with the investigation.
The city of Columbia denied the newspaper access to the emergency calls for help related to the crashes, at DNR’s request and on the same grounds. The area’s emergency call center is managed by the city.
Officials have confirmed that investigators took blood-alcohol tests of each of the four boat drivers to measure intoxication but haven’t released the results.
Officials also have said they are checking whether all boats were lit as required in the late-night accidents and are examining global location equipment that might provide information about the speed of the watercraft.
The collisions occurred minutes apart shortly after 10 p.m. May 1 between Susie Ebert and Flotilla islands in a heavily traveled part of the northeast area of the lake.
In the first crash, friends Kelli Bullard of Lexington and Amber Golden of Woodville, Ala., were killed while riding with two men when their boat was struck by another carrying two couples.
Less than an hour later, Matthew Kyle Howk of Columbia died shortly after the johnboat he was in was hit by another boat carrying three men. Randall Carter of Irmo, also in the johnboat, died a day later. The two were on a fishing and camping trip, relatives said.