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Fatal boat wreck in 94 only changed laws slightly
Attempt to toughen licensing, speed limits in heavily-trafficked areas failed to pass legislature
Marks from the prop of a boat that collided with this boat can be seen across the hull.

Phil Johnson considers himself pretty knowledgeable about Lake Lanier, but he had never before seen what he saw Monday night.

Johnson and his friend, David Bryant, were the first people to come to the aid of boaters involved in a boating accident shortly after 10:30 p.m. Monday.

The accident killed 9-year-old Jake Prince and left his 13-year-old brother Griffin missing somewhere in Lake Lanier.

“I’ve seen boating accidents,” Phil Johnson recalled to The Times on Friday. “But nothing traumatic like this.”

The accident is renewing a concern for boater safety that mirrors a push after a 1994 fatal boat wreck on Lanier.

As they worked recovery efforts for Griffin Prince earlier this week, officials with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources remarked that they hadn’t seen such interest since what they called “the wedding party tragedy.”

The accident involved eight revelers from an August 1994 wedding who, after the nuptials, took a Supra ski boat out on Lanier around 11 p.m.

As they floated, another boat, a 23-foot Wellcraft witnesses said seemed to have fallen from the sky, struck the Supra’s right side, jumped over it and disappeared.

The collision left propeller marks on the side of the Supra and, injured two passengers and killed two others: Sheri Johnson McManigal, 23, and Nathan Troy Cole, 22.

Reports from The Times in fall of 1994 detail the victims’ outcry when the operators of the other boat, Forsyth County residents Emma McCullough and Terry McCullough, were charged only with misdemeanors: failure to render aid and failure to report a boating accident.

“At that particular time, we didn’t have stringent enough laws on the books to pursue a lot of things with,” said DNR Capt. Johnny Johnson, who worked the 1994 wreck.

At the time of the tragedy, Georgia had no law holding boaters responsible for homicide on the water.

 But in the following legislative session, lawmakers sought to add teeth to Georgia’s boating laws.

Earlier in 1994, Jane Hemmer, a Democratic state senator from Hall County, sought unsuccessfully to decrease the legal blood alcohol level for boat operators from 0.10 to 0.08 to match the rules of Georgia’s roads.

And after the wedding tragedy, Hemmer said she would seek to pass legislation that required boat operators to obtain special licenses and would regulate boat speed in heavily-trafficked areas.

But in the 1994 election, Hemmer was defeated by Republican Casey Cagle, now lieutenant governor. He told The Times in September that year that he was against boat licensing and speed limits.

“It would create more of a bureaucracy, would result in higher taxes, more government regulation and more red tape,” he stated in a Sept. 12 Times article.

Cagle questioned whether Georgia had enough of a problem to justify more boating laws.

Including the deaths of the two Prince boys, the DNR has recorded 40 boating related fatalities on Lake Lanier since 1994.

The numbers show that boating-related fatalities have increased exponentially since the lake has attracted more visitors.

Before 1994, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had only counted 17 boating-related fatalities since Lake Lanier’s creation in the 1950s.

Though neither of Hemmer’s proposals ever made it into law, the 1994 collision did result in changed boating laws, said Capt. Johnson, who until earlier this year worked 24 years on Lake Lanier.

Johnson remembers that in the wake of the wedding party tragedy, state lawmakers created 10 new statewide positions for DNR rangers in 1995.

They also created a new criminal charge: homicide and feticide by vessel.

And now, as others reconsider whether Georgia’s boating laws are still too lax, Capt. Johnson said he’d like to see the state reconsider its legal limit for boat operators’ alcohol consumption.

In defending his position, the DNR captain said boaters already are impaired by heat, waves and noise.

“When you throw all those environmental conditions in with alcohol, most people look or act more intoxicated in a boating environment than those do in a vehicle,” he said.

Whether any laws change as a result of Monday’s accident, the events have affected how Phil Johnson operates on the lake. He said he and Bryant took his boat out just two days after Monday’s accident, “just because we needed to get back out there.”

But the lake seemed different.

“I feel like my head’s on a swivel,” Phil Johnson said. “Every boat that I saw, I didn’t trust.”

Johnson, who fishes in tournaments and guides fishing expeditions on the lake, said he and everyone on his boat will now wear a life jacket when the engine is running.

State lawmakers should consider a similar rule, he said.

“People need to learn boat safety and they need to use it,” Phil Johnson said. “Wear the life jackets. If nothing else, wear the life jackets. I think it ought to be mandatory at night that everybody wears a life jacket.”

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