HUNTINGDON - A life jacket might have factored into the drowning of a 36-year-old Carlisle woman following a boating accident the night of July 3 at Raystown Lake.
Francesca "Chessie" Marie Harris reportedly was trapped behind the double doors of the cuddy cabin beneath the deck of the boat when it sank after hitting the rocky shoreline.
"(The victim) was trapped inside the vessel; she did have a life jacket on, but was unable to get out," said press secretary Eric Levis of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
"She was afraid of the water, that's why she had her life jacket on; none of the others had their life jackets on and they made it," Supervisory Park Ranger Jude Harrington of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said. "As the boat went down, she couldn't get out of the cabin because she would've had to take her life jacket off to do that."
The 28-foot Glastron boat equipped with twin engines and a small cabin beneath the deck struck the shoreline across from the cove between markers 17 and 18 near Nancy's Campground about 10 p.m. July 3. The boat sank rapidly to 70 feet below water level because of the steep topographic slope of the land along the precarious shoreline, Harrington said.
"We know that they hit the rock shoreline; it looks like they glanced off the side of the rock shoreline and ripped a hole in their boat," Harrington said.
"When they sank, they just slipped down to the bottom of the channel. I think it's fair to say that the boat sank quickly; from the reports I got, the driver was trying to help his passengers and he didn't have time, so it went down that quick."
Huntingdon County District Attorney David G. Smith said, "It took some time to get it; as I understand it, it was a rather large watercraft. Two individuals who were involved in the crash were able to get to the shore and actually went back looking for help. Based upon what I was told, other people were injured as a result of the accident." Six people were on the boat when it struck the rocks.
The boat was damaged beyond repair and currently is being held by the Fish and Boat Commission.
The watercraft was apparently traveling at a high speed.
"It would be obvious from the damage to the boat that speed would have played a factor. You couldn't do that if you were traveling at a safe speed," Harrington said.
The extent to which alcohol played a role remains unclear.
"There was alcohol in the area where the boat was, but I don't know what degree that played," said Harrington.
"Alcohol is a factor," Capt. Alan Robinson of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission told the Mirror in an article published July 5.
"They had decided that the adults were going to get on the boat and do a night cruise, and something happened," Smith added.
Under the federal regulation of Raystown Lake, alcohol is permitted on the water. There are no limits on a boat's horsepower on the lake.
Both Levis and Harrington confirmed that nightfall and limited visibility also had a hand in the accident.
"Certainly nighttime boating would have been a contributing factor," Levis said.
"This was a dark night. I was out there and it was difficult to see. There was no moon. It was a dark sky. The individual said that he got turned around and lost his bearings," said Harrington. "If you are traveling at night, it's best to stay in mid-channel until you see the lights of another boat, and then, like in a car, you can steer to the right side of it when you're passing."
"The Friends of Raystown (Lake) had a light marker program where they raised money and placed marker lights on the points throughout the lake. They're not all in. They're still looking for more sponsors, but they do have them along the major areas. But where this accident was, it's between lights," Harrington said.
Despite the inherent danger associated with boating after dark, Harrington said that several nighttime watercraft operators, fishermen in particular, tend to frequent Raystown Lake.
"The fishermen are used to the conditions; they're used to very low visibility," Harrington said. "It's a difficult lake because it meanders back and forth. It's also difficult because there are very few shoreline lights so you can get your bearings. The bottom line is it's important to have your lights working well. It's important to be sober. It's good to have a visual representation of where you're at, and it's good to slow down. Out here it is so beautiful, it's so scenic, and it's such an awesome experience, but you've got to respect the lake and its depth, and unfortunately those who don't are paying the price."
According to Waterways Conservation Officer Anthony Quarracino of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the incident will remain under active investigation over the coming weeks; he declined further comment.
"We have not made a decision yet as to whether charges will be filed; however, it's an ongoing investigation," said Smith.
Harris, the mother of two sons, is the second person to drown at Raystown Lake this season.
Dustin Scott Weyandt, 23, of Duncansville drowned while trying to swim across a cove in mid-June.
"There wasn't any other boating accident the rest of the weekend, so unfortunately that graphic example might have caused everybody to be more cautious -hopefully it did," Harrington said of the July 3 accident. "It's ironic that it happened because there was a multi-agency effort to educate people about the hazards of boating under the influence, and less than a week later, we have this tragic event."