The Fourth of July weekend turned deadly at two Charlotte-area lakes, as two separate boating accidents left three people dead and two in critical condition.
The first incident happened Saturday night on Lake Norman, where a boater hit and killed 17-year-old Sheyenne Marshall of Concord. The second crash took place hours later at Mountain Island Lake and left dead two family members, Daniel and Jennifer Schmidt.
The two deadly accidents add to the unusually high number of boating crashes in North Carolina so far this year.
Since the first of the year, there have been 21 boating-related deaths, compared with a total of 27 last year, according to figures from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
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The latest boating fatalities highlight officials’ and neighbors’ concerns about the lack of water safety and driver education. In North Carolina, no driver education course is required for boaters born before Jan. 1, 1988.
“There are rules on the water just like there are rules on the road,” said Sgt. Ron Robertson of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Death on Lake Norman
Sheyenne Marshall was knee-boarding with family and friends at around 8 Saturday night when the boat that was pulling her turned left. A pontoon boat that had been following hers kept moving ahead, striking and killing the girl, authorities said.
The pontoon driver, 49-year-old Keith Owen Cerven of Mooresville, was taken to the Iredell County Jail and charged with boating while intoxicated. His blood alcohol content was .14, almost twice the legal limit, officials said.
Cerven was given a $10,000 secured bond.
An autopsy for the victim is scheduled for Tuesday morning, Robertson said, and more charges may be added against Cerven following conversations with prosecutors.
“Alcohol and water do not mix,” Robertson said.
A boat driver can be arrested for being under the influence of alcohol or drugs, he said, though he discourages any alcohol consumption on the lake. Alcohol, he said, can exacerbate sun fatigue and weaken even the strongest swimmers.
The Lake Norman accident took place during daylight hours in an open area off the main channel called McCrary Creek, officials said. Many other boaters were out on the main channel preparing to watch fireworks when the crash occurred.
Some 150 family members and friends remembered Sheyenne on Sunday evening outside Cox Mill High School, where she would have been a senior in the fall. Mourners said Sheyenne, who sometimes went by “Shiny,” loved to laugh and brought friends together from across her school.
Nicole Motley, the mother of one of Sheyenne’s longtime friends, helped organize the vigil and recalled her infectious personality.
“None of you can say you ever saw her without a smile,” Motley said.
Philip Long, Sheyenne’s family’s minister, said “her light” will continue through the school’s hallways this fall.
Friends spray-painted a 9-foot-tall rock in front of the school bright pink, Sheyenne’s favorite color. The design featured her No. 10 softball jersey and the message, “We love you, Sheyenne.”
Sheyenne is survived by her parents, Leta and Kenneth, and her 21-year-old sister, Montana.
Mountain Island Lake deaths
The second fatal boating crash of the weekend took place several hours later at Mountain Island Lake, where a boat carrying four people hit a rock formation around midnight, leaving two people dead at the scene.
The two were identified as Daniel Schmidt, 60, of Charlotte and Jennifer Schmidt, 29. Officials said she was visiting family over the holiday weekend from out of state but did not know where she lived.
The other two passengers were sent to Carolinas Medical Center in critical condition. One of the injured was a relative of the Schmidts, and the other appeared to be a family friend, said Sgt. William Laton of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
Laton said it’s unclear whether alcohol was a factor in the Mountain Island Lake crash. Daniel Schmidt was the owner of the boat and had been driving it at the time of the crash, he said.
Laton also said it’s unclear when an autopsy will be performed and officials are still investigating evidence – including the scene, the boat and statements from people in the area – to determine the cause of the crash. Visibility could have been an issue.
“Your depth perception is much more decreased in the dark, so things appear to be much further away than they actually are,” he said.
It is legal to operate a boat in the dark, Laton said, though boats, depending on their size, are required to have proper lighting. A vessel of more than 10 horsepower, for example, must have red and green lights in front and all around white lights in the rear, Laton said.
The current law requiring boater education for anyone born after the beginning of 1988 is stricter than it was before 2012, when essentially anyone could operate a boat without training regardless of age.
Scott Spivey – a licensed boat captain and president of the Lighthouse Marine Service, a nonprofit that offers boater education – said the state should mandate driver education and certification for boaters of all ages. Officials could start, he said, with live classes and testing.
“With a live class, you really know the person is sitting in class and can get their questions answered,” Spivey said. “With a proctored test, you know who is taking the test.”
Boats don’t have seat belts or airbags, Spivey pointed out, so specialized education could help prevent the kind of fatalities that have been occurring.
Some in the Lake Norman community agree.
Derrell Overcash, who grew up on the lake, said boat and jet-ski traffic has made the lake a “free-for-all.”
“The people on the lake have no idea how to drive boats,” Overcash told the Observer.