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Alcohol involved in fatal boat crash

Lights on the boat and the unlit jetty may have contributed to the crash.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2002

A 23-year-old Gulfport man who crashed his boat into a St. Pete Beach jetty, killing himself and a friend, had been drinking before the collision, blood tests show.

Michael Steinke had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19, according to Pinellas-Pasco Chief Medical Examiner Jon R. Thogmartin. That's more than double the 0.08 level at which the state presumes impairment.

"I'm shocked to death that that would happen because I know when he pulled up at the dock he wouldn't take a beer," said Bernice Sharbaugh, 73, whose daughter, Janie Sharbaugh, 45, was killed in the crash.

Aided by emergency workers and fishermen with cellular phones, three other friends on the boat survived the Dec. 8 crash.

Steinke and his friends had spent the day decorating the boat with Christmas lights in preparation for a boat parade the next night. Later, they set off on a cruise along Pass-a-Grille Beach.

Steinke was going too fast -- 40 mph -- when his 25-foot boat crashed into the end of the unlit Pass-a-Grille jetty, investigators said. Upon impact, the deck separated from the hull.

Steinke, whose family owns Mariner's Cove Marina in Gulfport, was an experienced boater.

In addition to testing for alcohol, investigators with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission turned their attention to the unlit jetty and Christmas lights on the boat that may have impaired Steinke's vision and ability to navigate.

Capt. Don Hudson of the commission said Friday that alcohol impaired Steinke's ability to operate the boat, but that a light on the end of jetty could have changed the outcome. "It couldn't hurt to have it lit," Hudson said. "But as far as being the answer to it, I don't know. We may never know."

The city might add lighting to its jetty at Pass-a-Grille, which juts west 200 feet off the tip of the island, said Chris Brimo, St. Pete Beach's interim city manager.

By the time Steinke hit the jetty, he had passed the swim buoys that are 200 to 300 feet farther offshore.

The friends hurt in the crash were Ross Weaver, 45, Sharbaugh's boyfriend. Cynthia McLaughlin, 46, also of South Pasadena, and her husband, Stephen McLaughlin, 34, also were injured.

Reached Friday, Cynthia McLaughlin declined to comment.

- Staff writer Amy Wimmer contributed to this report.

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