This past Friday, July 26, 2013, was a celebration for Brian Bond, 35, and Lindsey Stewart, 30, childhood sweethearts who were due to be married on August 10, 2013. But celebration turned to disaster quickly. After dinner at Pier 701 in Piermont, NY, the couple, along with best man Mark Lennon and two other friends, joined skipper Jojo John, 35 on his 19 foot powerboat for a nighttime ride across the Hudson River from Piermont to Tarrytown.
As is well known by now, the Tappan Zee Bridge is in the very beginning stages of replacement, and as part of that massive 3.9 billion dollar project, barges containing construction supplies have been placed on the north and south sides of the bridge. Tragically, at 10:40 PM on the evening of July 26th, which by all accounts was a clear night, the boat skippered by Mr. John struck a construction barge on the south side of the bridge, tossing Ms. Stewart and Mr. Lennon off the boat and severely injuring the remaining four passengers on the boat, including the driver Mr. John. Ms. Stewart and Mr. Lennon’s bodies were found in the Hudson River, tragically dead at the age of 30. But what caused the accident?
Immediately after the accident, newspapers were quick to call the boat ride a “booze cruise”, and editorials in local papers such as the Journal News immediately made the assumption that alcohol was to blame. However, witnesses have asserted that little alcohol was consumed by the group before they entered the boat that fateful evening, and by all accounts they were all hard working people with jobs to go to the next day.
Blood was taken from Mr. John, he has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and vehicular assault, and while recuperating at Nyack Hospital, he has been handcuffed to his bed. But shouldn’t we be waiting until definitive results have been disclosed by the State Police laboratory before we determine that Mr. John is criminally responsible for this tragedy? The legal limit for intoxication is 0.08% in New York State. What if tests reveal that Mr. John’s BAC (blood alcohol concentration) was 0.02, or 0.04, the latter of which could be the equivalent of two beers?
It is known that prior to the accident, at least one citizen, Michael Hortens, a Nyack resident, had contacted a Nyack official, Mayor Jen Laird-White, to express concern that the barges were inadequately lit, and that poor lighting would lead to a tragic accident with all the boat traffic at night during the summer on the Hudson River. Ms. Laird-White apparently did forward the letter to bridge construction officials. Hortens noted “[The barges] just seemed so potentially dangerous that I had to say something.” Hortens, a Rockland County resident and owner of an 18 foot sailboat, noted that “it was an accident waiting to happen…just a matter of time.” He declared, “to me, it’s obvious that people should have been warned or there should have been adequate lighting….my thinking is that [the barges] should be lit up like Christmas trees.” No one ever responded to Mr. Hortens from the State or local governments.
Naturally, after the accident, the State has added dozens of extra LED solar lights and battery powered lights to the barges. An official for the New York State Thruway Authority claimed that the barges met all Coast Guard requirements, which mandate that the barges must be able to be seen from one nautical mile, the equivalent of 1.15 miles or 6,076 feet.
John Schumacher, a friend of Mr. Bond and Ms. Stewart, who survived the terrible accident with serious injuries including a fractured jaw, has stated definitively that no one on the boat ever saw the barge before the accident. However, the Rockland D.A., Thomas Zugibe, seems set on presenting a criminal case to a Rockland County grand jury when Mr. John recovers sufficiently to appear in Court, possibly in September. But the question persists, is this a case of criminal conduct by Mr. John, or a case of avoidable negligence attributable to the State of New York in failing to ensure that the barges were well lit? If Mr. John was in fact intoxicated, he must properly face prosecution. However, perhaps Mr. Zugibe, and local media, should await laboratory tests and more investigation before blaming Mr. John and purported alcohol involvement for this tragedy—it is only fair.