David Stradling sometimes relives that moment on a warm April night on Lake Murray two years ago. He was on his 24-foot pontoon boat, looking at the stars, and was at peace with the world.
Just feet away from where he sat on his anchored boat, his three grandchildren, then ages 3 to 7, were sleeping. They were in shallow water by the Spence Islands near the south shore, opposite his home in the Irmo area and away from boat traffic corridors. He turned on an anchor light, visible from all points of the compass.
All three children were wearing life jackets; Stradling, 64 and a Vietnam War Army veteran, likes to be prepared for anything.
But he never dreamed he’d become one of the victims he had read about, that he would be involved in one of the increasingly common nighttime boating tragedies on Lake Murray. And he never dreamed that being on the lake with his grandkids would never be the same.
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“It was early in the year, when, typically, there aren’t many boaters. This was our first overnight that year. We go out, anchor up, I tell stories, we have rods out,” Stradling recalled last week. “I’ll wake them up if we catch a fish, whoever’s turn it is, and they’ll get up and reel the fish in.”
But around 10:50 p.m. on April 13, 2013, the first warm evening of that spring, Stradling heard a noise growing louder.
“I saw this white hull, coming right at us.” He stood to throw himself on his grandchildren to protect them.
“Before I even had a chance to leap, there was a huge white explosion. That’s all I recall.”
Stradling and his grandchildren lived.
The other boater, William Hampton III of Chapin, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of reckless operation of a boat while under the influence of alcohol and failure to keep a proper lookout. He spent two days in jail and was fined $215, records show.
In a deposition taken last September in Stradling’s lawsuit, Hampton testified under oath that he did not see any lights on Stradling’s boat and described it as “impossible to see.” Hampton acknowledged having Coke and Jack Daniels whiskey drinks before the crash at a Chapin lakeside restaurant, the Rusty Anchor, earlier in the night.
“I had two drinks, but I was not impaired,” Hampton said in the deposition.
Asked by Stradling’s lawyer why he pleaded guilty to two criminal charges, including BUI, stemming from the incident, Hampton said, “There are certain risks in ... a criminal case like like this. I was unwilling to take the risk, and pled guilty and accepted the punishment.”
Hampton, who said he had three broken ribs and internal bleeding in the crash and spent four nights in a hospital, also said in the deposition he had changed his ways.
“I do not drive at night anymore and have not in a year and a half,” Hampton said. “I don’t drink when I go out – anywhere.”
He also said, in response to a lawyer’s question, that he was sorry for the crash and accepted responsibility for it.
Efforts to reach him last week were unsuccessful.
A painful odyssey
As for Stradling, his body and psyche are still battered.
In an interview at his lawyer’s office last week, Stradling described his newly diagnosed post traumatic stress disorder, his long, painful odyssey to come back.
Four months after the crash, Stradling’s lawyers, Jim Griffin and Maggie Fox, filed suit against Hampton. They recently won a $203,000 judgment against Hampton’s insurance company to compensate for pain and suffering and more than $10,000 in medical bills.
Now, as the survivor of a horrific boat crash, Stradling wants to work with lawmakers and others to improve boating safety. Inexperienced boaters should be required to undergo more training, he said. And watercraft should have to slow down in the dark. He also would like to see increased boat patrols and stiffer penalties for anyone convicted of BUI.
The crash had numerous effects on his body and soul.
“For about six months after that, the grandkids didn’t even want to talk to me. They blamed me for the accident,” he said. “They are OK now. They know. They will ask me questions.”
That was particularly painful, because Strandling had taken the youngsters “boat-camping” dozens of times before, over-nighting under the stars, safe at anchor, while he sipped coffee from a thermos, smoked a cigar and watched the kids sleep.
A fisherman who used to go fishing 100 days a year, Stradling has been on the lake infrequently since the incident. “And no more boat camping.”
Stradling, once licensed to take people fishing and on lake tours, has given that up, too.
“I’m not comfortable on Lake Murray any more. I can hear cigarette boats on that lake just open it up – it’s crazy. It’s like a racetrack.”
Before the crash, he said, he was far more sociable, a person who could get in the middle of a tense situation and calm things down, straighten things out. That’s what he did during a long and successful career as a troubleshooter with Fortune 500 company United Technologies. And that’s what allowed him to do things such as being general manager of the Yacht Cove homeowners association.
Now, he said, “I spend three hours a day reading, mostly fiction, Tom Clancy or David Balducci,” he said. “I don’t see many people, I don’t attend many parties. I take the grandkids to the swimming pool. I will speak to people somewhat, but I’ve lost my people skills.
“I used to kind of joke around. I’m not too much of a jokester any more,” he said. “And my memory isn’t what it used to be.”
His body still hurts. In the crash, he suffered knee, hip, lower back, neck and shoulder injuries. He hurts much of time. He gets migraines.
“It hurts right now, and I took a pain pill before I came to talk with you,” Stradling said. He can’t climb a tree stand to hunt or fire a shotgun because his shoulder won’t tolerate the recoil.
Always, there is the memory of that night.
“I look up and I see a white hull at a high speed coming right at us. I jumped up, I had a handheld flashlight strobe in my pocket. I grabbed it, put the strobe on the individual, but he’s still coming at us at a high rate of speed. Finally he sees it – he turns hard left, but he’s going so fast. ... The boat skipped sideways through the water,” still aiming at Stradling and the sleeping children.
Then, the crash.
When Stradling came to, he saw Hampton’s boat resting in the water beside his. It had hit his boat, then sailed over it, leaving twisted piles of wreckage on Stradling’s deck.
“I looked down to where the grandchildren were – and the railing, everything is gone. I freaked. I made this horrible, high-pitched scream. I knew that even though they were in their life jackets, the sleeping bags would sink them.
“I start yelling for the grandchildren. I found my grandson first. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the grandchildren and the two bench seats had all been pushed to the inside, toward where I had been. But I couldn’t see that.”
“My grandson was absolutely freaking out, screaming for his sister Yesenia. I’m yelling for Yesenia and Lili. ... The back of the bench seat (Lili) was laying on had broke off and folded over her. ... she crawled out from the bench seat, and I’m yelling for Yesenia. I don’t know where she is, and then I heard her crying ... She was under some metal wreckage. ... She was under that, with her arm broken above her left elbow.”
“I didn’t know if we were sinking, I had no idea what was going on at that point. I told Joseph to take care of Yesenia, which he did. ... I was screaming at the other boater to call 911. ... He never came out of his cabin the whole time, and we were out there over an hour.”
Finally, Stradling contacted 911. Fortunately for him, witnesses observed the crash and were prepared to testify in court to support his version of events. Law enforcement officers took a blood alcohol test of Hampton. He registered 0.15 – as with driving a car, almost twice what’s considered evidence for being under the influence of alcohol.
“I’ve never sued anybody in my life,” Stradling said. But he did in this case “so it doesn’t happen to anybody else.
“At some point, someone has to stand up and say, ‘Enough’s enough.’ We have to protect the rest of the boating public. Our legislators need to understand they need to do something to keep people safe.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344. Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.
By the numbers
Boat collisions gathered by state natural resources officials:
2014: 127 accidents statewide, with 15 deaths and 58 injuries, including 12 crashes on Lake Murray with two deaths and seven injuries
2013: 108 accidents statewide, with 28 deaths and 91 injuries, including 11 crashes on Lake Murray and news reports of two deaths