Broward County

Tight-knit Aquinas community mourns death of teen in boating accident

Prayer vigil for boating victims at St. Thomas Aquinas High School

Students at St Thomas Aquinas High School held a prayer vigil Thursday night, August 13, 2015, for classmates involved in a deadly boating accident that happened late Wednesday night in Fort Lauderdale.
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Students at St Thomas Aquinas High School held a prayer vigil Thursday night, August 13, 2015, for classmates involved in a deadly boating accident that happened late Wednesday night in Fort Lauderdale.

Less than 24 hours after a late-night boat crash killed one St. Thomas Aquinas High School senior and injured five others, hundreds of students, parents and faculty filled the Catholic school’s gym to pray together.

“To me the St. Thomas Aquinas family means that we're always together no matter what,” said Student Body President Madeline Weiss. “In times of need we have each other. I couldn't imagine being with anyone else right now.”

Just before midnight Wednesday, a 13-foot Boston Whaler carrying the six 16- and 17-year-olds — five boys and one girl, all incoming seniors — crashed into a bridge at Dixie Highway and Northeast 18th Court in Fort Lauderdale, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission spokesman Liz Barraco.

When Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue arrived, they found one boy, later identified as John Baker, 17, dead, three teens with critical injuries and two others with minor injuries, said Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue Capt. Greg May.

Barraco said it wasn’t clear Thursday what caused the deadly crash, but did confirm that John was not the driver of the boat. She said the driver did have a valid boater’s I.D. and that the boat did not belong to anyone on-board, but that they did have permission to use it.

“What happened last night was a serious tragedy and we are really focused on finding out what led to the collision,” she said.

News of the deadly crash spread fast in the tight-knit St. Thomas Aquinas community — through social media, late-night calls and texts.

While officials are not identifying those on board, students named the injured as Chris Gernert, Sean Mahoney, Emily Giusti, Kevin Hurst and George Marshall.

“I know them all very well,” said Madeline, who broke down as she described her friends. “I'm sending so many prayers their way and all my love. I've been praying all day. I just hope for the best recovery for all of them.”

Madeline described the crew as “good kids,” who were involved in school sports, academics and other activities.

Amelia McCrory, 15, said that she was at varsity volleyball practice Thursday morning and “everybody was talking about it.”

“Then the coach called a huddle and stopped practice,” she said.

McCrory, who is friends with John’s younger sister, described John as an avid spear fisherman who loved to dive.

“He was always so happy,” she said, adding that he played junior varsity football, but did not join the varsity team. “He’d walk into a room and make people laugh.”

Hugo Meyjonadehe, who visited his friends at the hospital, told Miami Herald news partner CBS4 that Emily, the lone girl on the boat, was expected to be OK. Sean, however, had a long road to recovery.

“Sean got a fracture in his spine,” he said. “But surgery went very well.”

On Thursday night, students comforted each other, hugging and crying together. Six students lit candles for each of the victims and mourners clasped hands and said the Lord’s Prayer.

“Together as one, we pray,” said professor Ian Roberts.

The Rev. William Sullivan spoke to the youngsters about loss and grief.

“We try to prepare you for the sad and difficult moments of life,” said Sullivan, an assistant principal. “But no matter how much we try we are never prepared. We are never ready.”

Sullivan said students are “not expected to do anything,” but he did encourage them to talk to their parents and teachers about the tragedy. The six students on the boat had known each other since they were small.

“Time has a way of healing us and bringing us all together,” he said. “In the meantime we pray for John and his family, we pray for all of those involved in that tragic incident yesterday and we pray for all of us that we can come together as a community and that we know with God’s help we will get through this.”

Miami Herald news partner CBS4 contributed to this report.