Miami-Dade County

Investigators add alcohol as a possible factor in Biscayne Bay boating tragedy

The firework smoke had cleared. The night was getting late. And the mosquitoes were biting, which meant it was time to go home.

But as seven friends headed to shore aboard two separate boats, Kevin Karpiak slowed his craft to pull in a ladder. As he did, he watched his twin sister and her friends pull away in a 32-foot Contender and disappear toward the lights of Dinner Key Marina.

It was the last time he would see her alive.

On the way in, investigators say the Contender T-boned a 36-foot Carrera carrying a family of eight, who’d also spent Independence Day on their boat. The Contender smashed a hole in the side of the Hanono family’s Carrera and spilled children, mothers, lovers and friends into the bay, knocking some unconscious before spinning off and slamming into a third boat.

The impact left four people dead and three critically injured in a horrific collision that has scarred a half-dozen families. Investigators say it ranks as one of the deadliest recreational boating accidents ever seen in South Florida. On Monday, they continued the difficult process of sorting out how it happened — adding alcohol as a possible contributing cause.

“After doing a thorough inventory of the vessel, we did discover evidence of alcohol on board” the Contender, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino. He stressed it was too early to draw any conclusions because toxicology tests on the victims still are pending.

Pino confirmed Monday that the Contender was piloted by 23-year-old Andrew Garcia, the son of a retired Miami-Dade fire boat captain. He was knocked overboard and killed in the initial collision. Two passengers, Victoria Dempsey, 20, and Karpiak, 24, also died. Two others aboard, Catherine Payan, 24, and Samantha Rolth were critically injured.

Pino said the Contender struck the Carrera, where passenger Jason Soleimani, 23, died on impact. Another passenger, Dayanara Arias, 39, was critically injured and remains at Jackson Memorial Hospital, though her two young daughters escaped unscathed. Other members of the Hanono family aboard the Carrera suffered less serious injuries. The eight people on the third boat, a 35-foot Boston Whaler center console, were not seriously hurt.

Pino said investigators are examining the GPS navigation units, lights and other instruments on all three boats, which are impounded at the FWC facility in North Miami, to “put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

“We are downloading GPS information and taking all the physical evidence we have and documenting it,” Pino said.

No charges have been filed in the accident, which happened about 10:45 p.m. Friday about 1 ½ miles southeast of Dinner Key in Coconut Grove. The crash followed the conclusion of an Independence Day fireworks display that attracted throngs of boaters watching from the bay, including the Hanono family.

The group of eight spent the afternoon at Elliott Key, went swimming near Bayfront Park and watched the sunset over downtown Miami. The finale was supposed to be the fireworks show, which is typically followed by a scramble of boaters rushing in different directions to different marinas.

But as the family motored around the bay, trying to bide time while other boaters competed for ramp space, Garcia’s Contender suddenly slammed into their vessel, said Heather Hanono, who was aboard with her boyfriend, Soleimani.

The collision killed him and knocked Arias unconscious. A man who answered the phone number of another survivor, Elias Hanono, declined to discuss Arias’ condition or the crash on Monday.

“We’re in the hospital right now and that’s more important than making any comments,” he said. “You’re going to have to talk to my attorney in a couple of days.”

As the Hanono family waited Monday at Jackson Memorial, the father of Andrew Garcia lashed out during a press conference held by the Miami-Dade Fire union to protest cuts by Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Jack Garcia, a retired fire rescue boat captain, said that the result of Friday’s crash could have been different if there were more resources available.

“Everything that could have been done was not done,’ ” said Garcia, who only spoke about his son to say that he lived for boating. “Everything that should have been there was not there.”

Gimenez issued a statement expressing condolences for the tragedy but blaming the firefighters’ union for mothballing a rescue boat.

At Garcia’s house, a note on the door stated, “Our hearts and prayers go out to all the families involved in this tragic accident.”

Elsewhere, friends and family of those aboard the Contender gathered to cope with their death and hope for good news about those who survived. Rolth suffered a punctured lung but was expected to be let out of the hospital in a few days, according to Kevin Karpiak. Payan remained at Jackson.

The family of Victoria Dempsey, who was found in the water after the crash, is planning a memorial service. Her sister, Jenny Dempsey, said “Tori” liked to go fishing and boating in the Bahamas, and was a thrill-seeker who enjoyed sky diving. She had applied to join the U.S. Coast Guard and was studying at Miami Dade College to become a firefighter-paramedic.

Dempsey said she talked to her sister around 9 p.m., and she was “just sitting on a boat watching fireworks. Just hanging out. She seemed happy. Just having a good time.”

Karpiak said the friends had spent the afternoon at a sandbar near Key Biscayne, and set out late in the evening to find his boat. By the time they found where he was anchored, near CocoPlum, Karpiak said it was pretty much time to leave.

“It was pitch black so they had to find us. And after five or 10 minutes and I told them, ‘Look, we’re going to move,’ because of the bugs,” said Karpiak, 24. “And then we got separated.”

He said Garcia was an experienced, safe skipper.

“He was a good fisherman. A good boat guy. He always took responsibility,” Karpiak said.

Karpiak said he tried to keep track of the Contender but lost sight of its navigation lights as it pulled away and he couldn’t reach anyone aboard by phone. Then he got a call to come to Dinner Key, where a frantic search and rescue effort was underway. He later ended up at Jackson, where he identified the body of his sister.

Now, he’s trying to hold on to the last few minutes he spent with her, before she disappeared into the light.

“We were just out there,” he said, “having a good time.”

Miami Herald writers Emma Court, Beatrice Dupuy and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.