It was supposed to be a sun-drenched Miami birthday celebration on Biscayne Bay: 12 friends and two adults, out for a ride on a family’s boat on a gorgeous Labor Day holiday weekend.
But for reasons investigators were still working to determine on Wednesday, the 29-foot boat — skippered by a well-known owner of a Doral real-estate brokerage firm — struck a fixed marker at the end of channel at the far southern end of the bay, hitting it with enough speed and force to capsize the vessel and hurl everyone overboard.
It was about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, the bay nearly flat calm and plenty of light still left in the day. Other boaters and rescuers rushed to the scene, just a few miles from the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo, and plucked the victims, two adults and the rest teenage girls, from the water. Four girls were rushed to the hospital, with one — 17-year-old Luciana Fernandez — not surviving. Miami-Dade’s medical examiner on Wednesday ruled she’d drowned. Another, Katherina Sofia Puig, 17, remains hospitalized fighting for her life.
Families, friends and classmates at two schools the girls aboard attended — Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Southwest Miami-Dade and Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove, remained stunned and most were reluctant to talk. The ties among them were tight.
“All of the students that were on the boat, in the accident, were all very interconnected,” Sister Carmen Fernandez, the president of Our Lady of Lourdes Academy told WSVN-7. “They’ve been family, friends, parents included, since they were little girls.”
Three days after the crash, investigators were still trying to piece together what happened to turn what was supposed to be a fun outing into a tragedy. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which is investigating the crash, identified the operator of the wrecked vessel as George Ignacio Pino, a Miami civic leader and the president of State Street Realty. Pino is also a member of the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, where the FWC’s initial incident report said the boat was headed before the collision.
The FWC says it doesn’t believe alcohol — a contributing factor to many boating accidents on Biscayne Bay — was involved and have not signaled whether they are pondering any potential criminal charges. Pino has not issued any public comments and investigators also have been tight-lipped about the probe. They also won’t comment on one media report that a larger boat had passed by Pino’s craft, a Robalo, causing a wake that might have thrown his boat off course or temporarily distracted him.
Late Wednesday, Channel 7 showed a video of the twin-engine vessel, which had been towed to an FWC storage yard, with heavy damage to its starboard, or right, side of its light blue hull.
Pino and his wife, Cecilia Pino, were the two adults aboard. They were injured along with their daughter, Cecilia Lianne Pino, who turned 18 on Wednesday.
So far, parents of the passengers reached by the Herald declined to comment on the trip. One confirmed that Sunday’s ill-fated voyage was to celebrate the younger Cecilia’s birthday.
According to the FWC report, Pino had just departed Elliott Key and was headed to Ocean Reef when he plowed into the green Intracoastal Waterway Marker 15, which is the last marker in the channel through a shallow area of the bay called Cutter Bank.
Several people who know those who were on the boat said the passengers told them a larger vessel’s wake or direction may have impacted Pino’s vessel before it hit the channel marker. Herald news partner CBS Miami reported that Pino told rescuers that “he turned to check and make sure all of the girls were okay and that’s when he hit the channel marker.”
The FWC probe will entail interviewing all of the passengers and the captain, if he decided to speak, as well as possibly reviewing the boat, its GPS unit and other physical evidence.
After the probe is complete, the case will ultimately be reviewed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. But, based on initial but still sketchy reports, legal experts doubt that the crash — which did not involve alcohol and happened in broad daylight — would warrant criminal charges involving manslaughter or negligence .
Miami defense lawyer Michael Catalano said the captain would have to have been speeding in the dark without lights, or through a crowd of anchored boats. “Negligence is not a crime unless you can prove the behavior is so bad you should know it could have resulted in death,” Catalano said. “It has to be willful behavior.”
Still, the crash will likely result in a slew of civil lawsuits.
Experts say these types of allision crashes — recreational crafts plowing into fixed objects — happen more often that the public might realize, although they don’t often end in deaths, let alone over a dozen people flung into the water.
John “Jack” Hickey, a Miami maritime attorney who has boated in that channel since his childhood, says he believes 14 people on a 29-foot Robalo boat was just way too many. It wasn’t immediately clear what the rated carrying capacity of the vessel was or whether the number of passengers played any part in the accident. Capacities can vary a great deal from vessel to vessel.
“I know that boat. I would think four or five people should be on that, no more,” Hickey said. “A lot of people means a lot of distractions — and a lot of teenagers means a lot of distractions ... it’s sinful to have that many people on that boat.”
He also said that the wake of a passing boat should not be enough to cause a crash.
“Wake can be distracting to a captain. Wake can shift the direction of a boat,” Hickey said. “But if you’re a captain, you have to take that into account ... that’s not an excuse for taking your eye off the horizon.”
One key, still unclear, may be how fast Pino’s boat was traveling. Boats don’t have brakes to stop in an emergency and don’t turn as fast or sharply as cars — so last-second avoidance is limited.
David Avellar Neblett, another Miami maritime attorney and experienced boater, also said the vessel wouldn’t have to hit the channel marker head on to cause a catastrophe. Even a sideswipe would “grab” and rip the fiberglass of the hull, he said.
“It can be a glancing blow, which then overturns the boat or ejects the people,” Neblett said, adding “It’s something that happens quickly and a lot more often than you might think.”
Loved Ones Reeling
The tragedy shook the close-knit Miami-Dade Catholic school community because most of the teens attend either Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Coconut Grove or Lourdes Academy.
Lourdes has since held several events in memory of Luciana, including a vigil Monday night at the school attended by hundreds.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed on Wednesday that Luciana died of “accidental drowning.”
“Known for her smile, larger than life personality and signature laugh, Lucy was a joy to all who knew her,” Sister Fernández, the Lourdes Academy president, wrote in an email to students and parents Monday.
As for Katerina, she was the Miami Herald Girls Soccer 7A-5A Player of the Year at Lourdes. Her friend and teammate, Coco Aguilar, 17, was also hospitalized, as was Isabella Rodriguez, 17, of Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart.
“Coco and Katy are a very important part of our team,” Lourdes coach David Fique said in a statement he sent to the Miami Herald. “They’ve been in varsity since their freshman year; both have attended three state finals and have won one.”
The conditions of Rodriguez and Aguilar were unknown on Wednesday. But on Wednesday, dozens of relatives and supporters kept vigil at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, where Katerina remained unconscious.
“We’re praying for a miracle,” said one family member.