Miami-Dade County

Everything seemed right in Jose Fernandez’s life. Then it all went wrong.

The season was dwindling down to a few games and the Marlins were once again on the verge of going home without making the playoffs, but Jose Fernandez was still bubbling like a Little Leaguer on Opening Day as he talked to reporters.

He was excited about pitching his next game, gushing over an upcoming family vacation in the Keys, wired about his plans to bicycle 30 miles a day over the winter. Reminded that he hadn’t either pitched a complete game or hit a home run this season, he retorted with mock hauteur: “Not yet.” A boundless future was always in front of Fernandez.

“We have an incredible group of guys here,” he said of the Marlins. “Things here and there happen, stuff happens, we know how it is. But I think we do believe in ourselves as a team.”

But Fernandez’s future was not boundless. It would end 12 hours later on a pile of rocks in the inky predawn blackness of the sea just off South Beach, where his boat upended like a broken toy. As Fernandez said, things happen, but few are as tragic and mysterious — and, possibly, needless — as the Sept. 25 crash that ended the lives of an ebullient young rags-to-riches star and two others aboard his boat, and broke a million hearts across South Florida.

It will be months, if ever, before government investigators figure out exactly what happened out there in the dark water around the craggy stone jetty that protects Government Cut, the channel between the PortMiami and the open sea.

All the known witnesses are dead. The shattered remains of Fernandez’s sleek, fast boat— the Kaught Looking, written in the Marlins’ font with the K facing backwards like the ones baseball fans make on their score sheets to record a called third strike on a pitch so crafty or overpowering that a batter can’t even swing at it, just watch in frustration and awe as it crosses the plate — will provide some clues. So, maybe, will the testimony of friends who saw or talked to him in his final hours. But a detailed reconstruction of those hours is full of mystifying gaps.

A NIGHT OF FOREBODING

Practically everybody in baseball agrees that there was no more exuberant player in America than Jose Fernandez. If he made a great play, he laughed and smiled. (There’s a hugely popular video of him, a couple of years back, miraculously snatching a rocket-shot line drive out of the air over his head, robbing Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki of a hit. You can easily read Tulowitzki’s bewildered lips: “Did you catch that?” And Fernandez’s chortled reply: “Yeah, I did!”) And if somebody made a great play against him, he also laughed and smiled: OK, you got me that time.

His congenital joy extended to his personal life, and why not? He escaped Cuba on a boat and arrived in Florida as a penniless 14-year-old; even when he first reported to the Marlins, he didn’t have a suitcase, just a couple of shopping bags carrying everything he owned. Now he was making $2.8 million a year as one of the brightest young pitchers in the game, expected to grow to a multi-year contract worth $200 million or more when he became eligible for free agency after the 2018 season.

Certainly there was no trace of ill humor when he gave his final interview to Clark Spencer and Tim Healey, beat writers for the Herald and Sun-Sentinel, respectively, shortly before the Marlins played the Atlanta Braves on the night of Saturday, Sept. 24. And he was still jovial — maybe even more so — after the Marlins won. Fernandez’s next pitching assignment had been unexpectedly delayed 24 hours until Monday, so he could go out after the game. He began asking friends on the team if they wanted to join him for a nighttime spin on the Kaught Looking.

Fernandez loved the Kaught Looking nearly as much as he loved baseball. It was a 32-foot, open-air SeaVee powerboat that could hit 60 mph. He used it for both fishing (favorite prey: swordfish) and partying and sometimes just to pop over to the Bahamas for lunch on Cat Cay. Social media sites bristled with pictures of his boating buddies wearing T-shirts labeled J’s Crew (possibly named for organizer Jessie Garcia) and rocking rods, reels and bikinis.

To many people, the idea of cruising the waters off South Beach in the wee hours of the morning sounds like a walk on the wild side. But in the nocturnal rhythms of baseball players, who don’t get off work until 10:30 or 11 p.m., late-night socializing is simply a routine fact of life.

Nonetheless, Fernandez couldn’t find any takers for his offer that Saturday night. “That night I told him, ‘Don’t go out,’ ” recalled outfielder Marcell Ozuna, Fernandez’s best friend on the team. “I told him I couldn’t go out that night because I had the kids and my wife waiting for me.”

Instead, Fernandez headed for the Cocoplum Yacht Club, where he docked his boat, while calling other friends to invite them along. And sometime after he left the Marlins clubhouse, his mood turned abruptly downward.

The first evidence showed up in texts and phone calls from one of Fernandez’s buddies: Eduardo Rivero, a 25-year-old executive in the sales department at Carnival Corp. Rivero called his businessman friend Will Bernal around midnight to say he was driving over to the dock to join Fernandez on the boat. The pitcher, he added, was upset after an argument with his girlfriend. Fernandez “was stressed and wanted to go out,” Bernal said, recalling his conversation with Rivero to the Miami Herald.

Maria Arias, sister-in-law of one of Fernandez’s boating buddies, had linked up with him five months earlier, after the breakup of his relationship with a former Marlins cheerleader. The 24-year-old Arias was soon pregnant. Fernandez was clearly excited about the baby; a Facebook video of a party where Arias gave him a pink cake to clue him in to the gender shows him laughing with delight.

And last month he posted a picture of Arias in a bikini, baby bump clearly visible. “I’m so glad you came into my life,” Fernandez wrote. “I’m ready for where this journey is gonna take us together. #familyfirst”

Nonetheless, Fernandez had told friends on the team that while he was pleased at the prospect of being a father, he didn’t intend to be a husband any time soon. And in his final interview, when he was asked if he planned to marry during the baseball off-season, Fernandez replied crisply: “No. No. No. No.”

Arias hasn’t talked to reporters since the accident. So what they argued about — or even if they really did argue, because no eyewitness has publicly surfaced; Bernal is merely relating what he was told — remains unknown.

Whatever the case, it sounded to Bernal like Fernandez wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be operating a boat in the middle of the night. Bernal, who had once been out on the ocean in the dark and found the experience alarming, tried to talk his friend out of going along.

“I did my best to convince him not to go,” Bernal said. “It's just a recipe for disaster.”

When Bernal’s arguments didn’t work, he told Rivero to at least turn on his iPhone’s GPS tracker so Bernal could make sure they were OK. Their text conversation was laden with foreboding.

“Yo man please be careful bro,” Bernal texted.

“I will bro,” Rivero replied.

“Try to keep him close to shore if you go out,” Bernal urged.

“Trust me it’s not my time yet,” Rivero replied.

Over the next hour, as Bernal watched television, he checked on the boat’s progress through his iPhone tracker. The boat appeared to be cruising uneventfully in Biscayne Bay. But at 12:55 a.m. it stopped on the Miami River at American Social, an upscale waterfront pub that most nights is packed with Brickell’s young and beautiful, choosing from an “endless selection of craft beers” while munching duck confit hash and black truffle short ribs.

 
American Social in Brickell. MARSHA HALPER / mhalper@miamiherald.com

Fernandez and Rivero went into the bar, then called a close friend of Rivero’s: Emilio Macias, a burly client associate at Wells Fargo Advisers who lived in the Neo Vertika luxury residential building towering above American Social.

Macias, who celebrated his 27th birthday on Friday, had turned in for the night. But Rivero urged him to come downstairs and chat with Fernandez; it might be a way to recruit a lucrative new client.

So Macias threw on blue jeans and a gray Fly Emirates T-shirt, pulled a baseball cap over his head and walked out the door. He didn’t plan to go out on the boat, just exchange a few words with Fernandez, a man he’d met for the first time earlier that day.

But the conversation lingered. Photos of the three men at American Social were posted on various social media accounts around 2:35 a.m. A few minutes later, on an impulse, Macias jumped onto the Kaught Looking for what he expected to be a quick spin around Biscayne Bay.

Back at Bernal’s apartment, he was no longer monitoring the boat on his phone. Convinced it was tied up safely at American Social and any danger had passed, he fell asleep around 2 a.m., shortly after sending Rivero a final note at the bar: “Wish I was with you guys. I need more guy time.”

“Bro I wish,” Rivero replied, and then his phone went silent.

THE UNKINDEST CUT

Where the Kaught Looking and its impromptu crew went for the 35 minutes following their departure from American Social, and what they did, is unknown. Some answers may eventually emerge from examination of the boat’s navigation equipment and the cell phones the men carried in their pockets, but if investigators have found anything, they haven’t revealed it.

There’s less doubt about who was piloting the boat. Though no forensic evidence has been released yet, most of his acquaintances assume Fernandez was at the controls. He barely knew Macias, and Rivero’s friends say he had little boating experience.

What’s certain is that, at some point, the men left Biscayne Bay and headed out into the open sea beyond Miami Beach — perhaps to cruise north alongside South Beach, a boater favorite, or south toward Key Biscayne. And sometime not long after 3 a.m. they approached the granite jetties that line Government Cut, the channel that big commercial ships use to reach the PortMiami.

 

Government Cut was opened in 1902 after the federal government literally hacked off the southern tip of Miami Beach, which became Fisher Island, to create an opening to the port on Dodge Island. The deep channel in the cut is kept clear by the jetties.

The jetty on the north extends about 3,000 feet east into the ocean from Miami Beach; the one on the south, about 2,750 feet east from Fisher Island. The space in between them is about 900 feet wide.

A lot of boaters trying to use Government Cut to enter Biscayne Bay find it challenging. Accidents around the jetties are not uncommon, and while most of them are the seagoing equivalent of fender benders that boaters don’t even bother to report, there have been at least two fatal accidents since 1984, claiming a total of five lives.

“That’s a difficult jetty to navigate,” said Scott Wagner, a Miami attorney who specializes in maritime law. “It’s somewhat difficult even during the day. The jetty is there, blocking the way you might ordinarily come into the channel, and it’s tricky. At 3 a.m., it’s much worse, because of the vision problems.” In the dark, the black jetties are nearly impossible to see — especially during higher tides, when they rise barely a foot above the water.

Government Cut poses fewer problems for the nighttime arrival of big commercial vehicles, which approach the channel from far out at sea and steer a course between 13 large, lighted buoys arranged in two lines, marking a sort of maritime highway.

The buoys are, of course, just as visible to smaller boats like the Kaught Looking. Captains of smaller vessels need to use a chart (paper or electronic) and the channel to avoid the jetty, although they sometimes try to cut in someplace in the middle. If they do it too close to the jetty, trouble awaits.

“It’s hell on wheels to go close around the corner of the jetty at night,” said Richard Wood, who supervises boater safety classes for the Palm Beach Sail and Power Squadron, a maritime educational group. “You can’t see anything, there’s no moonlight, and the higher the tide, the less the jetty is sticking out of the water...

“And if you’re out at sea, turning toward the Florida coast, the buoys and navigational lights blend in with every other frickin’ light ahead of you — downtown condos, cruise ships, everything you can imagine.”

Of course, there’s no way — at least not yet — to know whether the Kaught Looking was trying to cut a corner into Government Cut. Perhaps the boat was running alongside South Beach, planning to enter Biscayne Bay from a point south of Fisher Island or Virginia Key, and hit the unseen jetty head on.

Either way, said Wood, the accident shouldn’t have happened.

“It was 100 percent preventable, if they knew what they were doing,” he insisted. “Though you can’t see the jetty at night with your naked eye, you should be watching your chartplotter, the thing we use in boats that’s like a GPS in a car. It has a map with a little dot shaped like a boat that’s you — it tells you exactly where you are, and where the jetty is.

“And I don’t know if the boat was equipped with radar, but that’s also very clear. You see an actual radar image of where you are and what you’re going into. If it’s something solid, that’s pretty obvious. Of course, that’s assuming it’s set properly and you’re looking at it... If things start to look tricky, you say to yourself, am I too close? Should I turn away? I need to slow down and figure this out.”

A TERRIBLE NOISE

Whatever the Kaught Looking hit, it hit loud. The collision produced an unearthly screech so violent that a Miami Beach cop on shore reported it to a Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue patrol boat at about 3:20 a.m. A passing Coast Guard patrol boat spotted the wreckage at about the same time, crumpled on Government Cut’s north jetty. Divers were in the water within minutes, and by 4 a.m. had recovered all three bodies.

Two hours later, phones began ringing around Miami, and tears started to flow. “I cried and cried,” confessed Ozuna, the player who tried to convince Fernandez not to go out on the boat. Said Bernal, who fell asleep thinking his worries had been unwarranted: “I just froze. Got goosebumps. A sickening feeling.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees Florida boating regulations, is investigating what caused the accident. “They’re going to be trying to create a chronology of what happened,” said Wagner, the maritime law attorney.

“They’ll be looking at GPS coordinates from the boat’s equipment, information on the cell phones the men were carrying. They’ll want to know where the boat was coming from and where it was headed. And if that information is time-stamped, they’ll be able to tell its speed.”

Almost every expert who saw photos of the boat’s wreckage had the same immediate reaction: It was traveling fast. Fernandez’s driving record on land — he was ticketed for driving 82 in a 65 mph zone on the Turnpike in 2013, ran a red light in Tampa later that year, and was cited for swerving into the wrong lane in North Carolina in 2012 — will doubtless be scrutinized. And the results of toxicology tests are expected to be finalized by the end of the coming week.

Many of the same investigative techniques that police use in automobile accidents will be applied to the wreckage of the Kaught Looking. “Obviously there are no skid marks to measure,” Wagner said. “But depending on the type of incident, the damage to the bottom of the hull, the damage to the propellers and engines, can tell you a lot. If they were torn off, you can tell how, and that may tell you what direction they were headed and what they hit first...”

“And you’ll look at the jetty itself. Paint rubs off in a crash. And with an impact like that, there will be evidence on the rock itself of where the boat first hit.”

The position of the boat seems to suggest that Kaught Looking was heading south at the time of the collision. But there are other possibilities — notably, that it hit something in the water first, which could have altered its direction. “In maritime situations,” Wagner cautioned, “anything is possible.”

Even, perhaps, for the sea itself to shed tears. Last week, as literally millions of South Floridians joined Fernandez’s family in mourning, an odd and heartbreaking package washed up on South Beach, a mile or so from the wreckage of the Kaught Looking: a bag of four autographed baseballs, the scrawled name Jose Fernandez still clearly legible.

Miami Herald staff writers Julie K. Brown, Clark Spencer, Michelle Kaufman, Jenny Staletovich and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Jorge Ebro contributed to this report, which was written by Glenn Garvin.

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