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Witness says Coast Guard vessel was going ‘too fast’ before fatal San Diego Bay crash

Mark Sromalla was aboard a sailboat in San Diego Bay with his boss and their wives on Sunday, enjoying a fireworks display and preparing for the annual procession of boats decked out in holiday lights.

Then he saw a Coast Guard vessel heading toward his group’s boat at a rapid rate of speed.

Sromalla, an oil products sales manager, worried that the patrol boat was going to hit their sailboat, but it moved aside at the last moment.

“The speed was incredible,” he recalled in an interview with The Times.

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Moments later, the 33-foot Coast Guard boat collided with a pleasure craft, killing an 8-year-old boy and leaving five people hurt.

Sromalla said he believed the Coast Guard vessel was going “too fast” in crowded waters during the annual Parade of Lights.

“Even if there was a life-threatening emergency, I’m not sure you would want to go that fast with that many boats” crowded in the water, he said.

Sromalla estimated that there were about 25 to 30 other boats in the area at the time.

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Federal investigators have been in San Diego since early this week trying to determine the cause of the accident.

Coast Guard officials have declined to comment about the incident, but said the patrol boat was in the area because of reports of a grounded vessel and that it collided with the pleasure craft about 6 p.m.

Sromalla said his group was watching a fireworks show when they heard a call for a “vessel assist” about 5:45 p.m. on a radio scanner on the sailboat.

“After another five minutes, this Coast Guard vessel comes at us from behind,” Sromalla said, adding that he believed the boat was traveling 40 to 50 mph.

After the patrol boat passed their craft, Sromalla said he saw it slow down, point toward the beach and take off quickly again. Shortly after, Sromalla said he heard a large “boom.”

He said his group’s approximately 32-foot sailboat was traveling 3 to 4 knots and that it soon approached the scene of the crash.

Sromalla said someone aboard the pleasure craft was shouting, “I want police here, I want police here, this is unacceptable,” and that he heard the sound of a child crying.

Authorities later said 8-year-old Anthony Cole DeWeese was pronounced dead shortly after the accident and that five others, including two other children, were injured. There were 13 people aboard the craft.

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Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates such incidents, said investigators were waiting for the results of alcohol and drug tests that were administered to the five crew members aboard the Coast Guard patrol boat.

He said investigators planned to download electronic information from the patrol boat’s navigation system to “determine the time, track (position) and speed” of the craft when it collided with the pleasure boat.

The investigators also were examining both crafts, looking for “signature marks” that might explain the angle and force at which the boats collided, Knudson said.

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com


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