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    Sheriff faults boater in crash

    Officials say Maryann Scibelli, 52, broke navigational rules when her personal watercraft collided with an ultralight plane, killing her.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- A boater who died in a May 6 collision with an ultralight plane on Lake Seminole was at fault in the crash, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Thursday.

    Maryann Scibelli, 52, violated two navigational rules when her Sea Doo personal watercraft collided with an ultralight plane, said sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie.

    Scibelli didn't look for other vessels while on the water, and she created a dangerous crossing situation, violating the ultralight pilot's right of way, Dennie said.

    "She was not looking at where she was going," Dennie said.

    Ultralight pilot John Tanner had a student aboard his craft when he landed on the lake. Tanner was talking with his student and had been on the water between 30 seconds and a minute when Scibelli's Sea Doo struck the rear left of the craft, Dennie said.

    Tanner, 44, of Largo has maintained from the day of the accident that he did nothing wrong, though some witnesses said they thought it was his fault. Tanner said he believes some residents in that area are against ultralights landing on the lake.

    After the impact, Scibelli was thrown into the ultralight's propeller.

    "She (Scibelli) came up behind me, and I think she just misjudged our speed," Tanner said Thursday. He noted that ultralights that land in water come in fast at about 55 mph, but slow down in seconds once the floats hit the water.

    The FAA continues to investigate whether Tanner was violating a federal law by flying the craft over a congested area. If investigators conclude he did, he could face a fine of more than $1,000.

    "We have not taken any actions and we have not concluded our investigation into the issue," said Kathleen Bergen, an FAA spokeswoman. "Certainly, that's something we're looking at."

    Tanner said Thursday that the lake was not congested, with only about 20 boats on the water. He received a letter from the FAA Thursday asking for a statement about what happened. He said he does not deserve a fine.

    "I felt I was in a very safe and wide-open area," Tanner said. He added that only he and not his student, 50-year-old Jeremy Ryan of Holiday, was in control of the ultralight.

    Tanner, who is certified by the Experimental Aircraft Association as an ultralight instructor, said he has been flying for about 15 years. Ryan owned the plane involved in the accident.

    Deputies are awaiting results of a toxicology test to find out whether Scibelli had alcohol in her blood. Deputies did not take blood from Tanner or Ryan because there were no indications that either had been drinking, officials said.

    Scibelli's husband, Kenneth Scibelli, declined to comment Thursday, but said in an earlier interview that his wife, an experienced rider, could not have caused the crash.

    - Times staff writer Maureen Byrne contributed to this report.

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