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Searching for answers: Friends remember victims of boat crash
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A Cobb County Underwater Search and Recovery Team diver brings oxygen tanks to the diving crew’s boat Thursday at the launch site off Buford Dam Road.

Friends and strangers alike offered their support Thursday for a grieving Buford family, even as crews continued to search a third day for 13-year-old Griffin Prince, who has been missing since Monday’s fatal boat crash.

Griffin’s 9-year-old brother, Jake, died on the scene of the crash, which involved a 21- to 22-foot center console fishing boat and a 17-person pontoon boat carrying 13 passengers on Lake Lanier.

The fishing boat struck the pontoon practically head-on in the Shoal Creek area of the lake near Buford Dam, according to authorities.

Paul J. Bennett, 44, of Cumming, who was piloting the fishing boat, has been charged with boating under the influence in the 10:30 p.m. wreck. He is free on $5,000 bail. Additional charges are pending an investigation of the crash.

Authorities have not commented on whether either vessel was using lights before the nighttime crash.

As news has spread of the tragedy, members of the community are finding ways to honor Griffin and Jake, and offering what comfort they can to the surviving family.

A Facebook memorial page introduced by friends of the family asked those who knew the boys to post their photos, videos and memories of Jake and Griffin. The page, www.facebook.com/GriffinandJakePrince, drew thousands of viewers and hundreds of pictures and comments.

Some posts were from strangers offering their prayers and condolences to the boys’ father, Mike, their mother, Tara, and big brother, Ryan.

There was also an outpouring from school classmates and parishioners at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sugar Hill Stake, where the Princes attend.

Their many pictures and stories about the two boys captured distinct personalities, as well as their interests.

Griffin, a rising eighth-grader at Lanier Middle School and a middle child, was known to be shy — especially around adults. Still, he was far from expressionless. Several recalled Griffin’s infectious, and sometimes mischievous, smile.

One former church teacher wrote of Griffin, “He is one of the most well-behaved, humble and respectful boys I have ever known.”

Another wrote that when Griffin was talkative, he often spoke about his family and his admiration for his older brother, Ryan.

Many remarked that the reserved Griffin found joy in outdoor activities like camping and dirt-biking.

Jake, a rising fourth-grader at White Oak Elementary School, was known to be more outgoing.

“You never knew what he was going to say,” another church member offered, “but it was something usually surprisingly funny for someone so young.”

Like Griffin, he was also known for his kindness.

A mother of one of Jake’s schoolmates remembered what a good friend he had been to her son during a tough year for the family.

“While most of the class was put off, Jake put his arm around (him) when he was crying,” she wrote.

While the website offered many memories, other well-wishers found more physical ways to memorialize the boys. Flowers and a poster were left outside the Prince’s Buford home on Thursday. Someone also left a wreath outside the Grass Shack marina, which is owned by the boys’ grandfather.

According to the memorial Facebook page, a fund has been set up for Griffin and Jake at Wells Fargo Bank.

While friends and families continue to grieve, authorities are continuing their underwater search for Griffin.

The Cobb County Police Department dive team joined the Department of Natural Resource rangers and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office dive team on Thursday in the ongoing recovery effort.

“We’re doing that to bring closure to the family,” said Maj. Stephen Adams of the DNR’s law enforcement division. “We’re continuing to use all available resources.”

Using DNR sonar equipment, officials are searching for “target areas” below the surface to send the dive squad to check out. DNR aircraft were also flying overhead to aid efforts on the water.

Hall County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks said the help from Cobb County was welcome.

“It virtually doubles the speed of our search,” he said.

But conditions make the search difficult. With depths up to 130 feet, there is practically no visibility for the divers. Officials also describe an underwater forest of standing trees to contend with.

Divers plan to continue searching until at least this afternoon. With heavy boat traffic, Wilbanks said it would be unsafe to search over the weekend. However, the search is expected to pick up again on Monday.

Onshore, investigators continue attempts to reconstruct the collision based on witness statements and damage marks from the boats. They’re hoping to determine who had the right-of-way in Monday’s crash and who — if anyone — is at fault.

Results from the investigation could take weeks.

Attempts to reach Bennett for comment this week have not been successful, and it isn’t known whether he has an attorney.

While authorities had reported Bennett had left the scene after the crash, Mike Prince Sr., the boys’ grandfather, said the boater who struck the pontoon boat stopped and watched for about 10 minutes after the crash.

“The only reason he didn’t get Griffin was because he wasn’t wearing a life jacket,” Mike Prince said.

Mike Prince told WSB-TV that he had sold Bennett the boat involved in Monday’s wreck.

Deniece Prince, the boys’ grandmother, told stations that her family is religious and is trying to remain positive.

“This is not just a single event that has altered our lives. Everyone involved from the beginning of the tragedy and how it’s altered everyone’s lives, not just ours,” Deniece Prince said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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