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Boat crash survivors cope with their loss

While investigators narrow down causes to Saturday night's accident, one survivor sees a dream shattered.

By MELIA BOWIE
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 11, 2001


Two days after surviving a St. Pete Beach boating accident that killed two loved ones, Ross Weaver began the painful business of mending his broken body. His shattered heart is another matter.

"We were going to spend the rest of our lives together. Janie was my soulmate," a red-eyed Weaver said of his longtime girlfriend, Janie Sharbaugh, who died after their boat crashed into a rocky pier late Saturday. Michael Steinke, 23, who was steering the 25-foot-vessel, also was killed.

"Michael was just a very, very nice guy, sincere, very mature," said a sedated Weaver, recovering Monday at Bayfront Medical Center after surgery to repair a broken leg.

Investigators on Monday turned their attention to the unlit jetty and Christmas lights on the boat that may have impaired Steinke's ability to navigate. They also are awaiting toxicology reports and would not comment on whether alcohol may have played a role in the wreck.

"There are a lot of circumstances that have contributed to the accident -- one of which is the lights on the boat . . . you can't see out (or) what's coming at you," said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

He said investigators also think the boat veered into the no-boating area inside the swimming buoys along the beach.

The accident, occurring on a much-anticipated outing among friends, brought a tragic close to the reunion of Weaver and Sharbaugh, who died early Sunday. The South Pasadena couple, both 45, lived together in a house by the beach after finding each other again in 1995.

Although Weaver and Sharbaugh had known each other since the 1970s, they were married to other people. Years later, after both had divorced, they reunited, Weaver said.

They had watched last year's holiday boat parade from the shore, but this year Weaver said Sharbaugh was thrilled to be participating on Steinke's 25-foot Big Kahuna.

"She kept asking when we were going to decorate the boat," said Weaver.

Around 7 p.m. Saturday, as the boat glittered with lights and echoed with Frank Sinatra Christmas carols, the group of friends set off to cruise Pass-a-Grille Beach before the big parade the next night.

The boat also carried Stephen and Cynthia McLaughlin, who was upgraded to fair condition Monday at Bayfront with a fractured skull and broken ribs and neck bones. Her bruised husband and their family gathered inside the hospital intensive care unit after informing McLaughlin, 46, that her best friend Janie had died.

"We were just out for a little Christmas trip," said Stephen McLaughlin, 34. "It was just a horrible accident."

Although Steinke, whose family owns Mariner's Cove Marina in Gulfport, was an experienced boater familiar with the area, Morse said he was traveling at roughly 40 mph when the boat hit the jetty, according to witnesses.

No matter how experienced a boater, 40 mph is an excessive speed, especially at night, said Dan Brooks, owner of Bay's Best Charters in St. Petersburg.

"You don't have brakes on a boat; it takes a long time to stop," he said. "Twenty-five miles per hour is even moving along at a pretty good clip."

Also alarming, he said, are reports of the Christmas lights.

"Any type of flashback you get off the boat or the chrome could affect your vision," said Brooks. "At night it could take your eyes five to 10 minutes to adjust."

A weary McLaughlin, his eye blackened and eyebrow stitched, said he had confidence in Steinke and noted the young man had been boating since he was 10.

"To my knowledge . . . Mike refused a drink at dinner because he was driving," Cynthia McLaughlin's daughter, Sarah Hayduke, said after talking with the survivors. "He was a very responsible person. His mom and dad should be proud."

Stephen McLaughin said the boat was going 25 mph when it hit the jetty. He added that the lighting may have been the problem.

"I think it was just the Christmas lights on the boat and the pier was pitch black. I think it might have obscured his vision," McLaughlin said.

"Right before we hit I knew we were headed there," he continued. "Janie went into the water, Ross landed on the pier but his leg was broken. . . . Mike was trapped underneath the boat."

Now, he said, a somber network of boating friends are working through their loss.

"For us, I think the next week will just be (spent) grieving."

-- Staff writer Jamie Jones contributed to this report.

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