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State: No safety violations found on charter boat from which man fell, drowned

Officers investigating the death of a man who fell off a charter boat Sept. 1 on Lake Norman found no safety violations on the boat or in the captain’s response, Sgt. Barry Rowell of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said Monday.

Matthew Bell, 33, of Charlotte, was among 103 passengers and six crew members aboard the Ragin’ Mistress when he fell off the boat.

Only a couple of people saw Bell fall, Rowell said. Authorities must await the results of an autopsy to determine what caused Bell to fall near Marker D4, off Shearwater Point Drive in Cornelius. Those results could take several months, Rowell said.

In hopes of spotting Bell on the water that night, the captain promptly turned the boat around when he was told someone had fallen overboard, Rowell said. Police were contacted, and the Cornelius Fire Department sent out a boat.

Although Bell was employed by the Ragin’ Mistress, he was not on duty when he fell off the boat, Rowell told the Observer in a previous interview.

Officials searched the lake for days, even using sonar to probe under the water, but they could find no trace of Bell and ended the search Sept. 9.

A boater discovered Bell’s body Sept. 14 near where he’d fallen in. Cornelius firefighters recovered the body.

Rowell has said it’s unclear why it took Bell’s body so long to resurface. He said the body might have been caught under something, but he added that the autopsy results could help answer that question.

The Ragin’ Mistress is one of five charter boats with a permit from the Lake Norman Marine Commission to operate on the lake. Representatives of Luxury Yacht Charters, the boat’s operator, have declined to discuss the drowning “out of respect” for Bell’s family.

The charter boat was in full compliance with required safety rules in the Lake Norman Marine Commission’s ordinance governing charters, Rowell said Monday. The boards of commissioners of Iredell, Mecklenburg, Catawba and Lincoln counties appoint members of the Marine Commission.

Rules include having the required insurance, proof of a successful annual inspection, and a qualified captain aboard. A captain must hold a valid U.S. Coast Guard master’s license.

Capt. Richard Permenter, former marine commission chairman, has said that requiring charter captains to obtain Coast Guard master’s licenses adds a higher level of safety. “One of the biggest things is the education on stability” of large boats that’s provided in the master’s license course, Permenter said.

The death was the second involving a charter boat in the lake’s 50 years, marine commission officials have said.

Nate Coppick, 19, who worked at Westport Marina in Denver, was killed in an explosion June 10, 2008, while refueling Championship Yacht Charters’ 80-foot Championship II boat. Suits against the marina owner and boat owner Cliff Champion were settled out of court.

In April, a Lincoln County jury took only 50 minutes to issue a $1.5 million judgment against a Denver company that supplied a fuel nozzle that caused the explosion. Jurors told the Observer they were unanimous in agreeing that Petroleum Equipment and Service had knowingly put people in danger by installing a piece of equipment that the state said was illegal to use at marinas.

Marusak: 704-987-3670 Twitter: @jmarusak
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