Four were killed and several seriously injured in the Fourth of July Dinner Key boating tragedy, when a 32-foot Contender powerboat slammed into the side of a 36-foot Carrera. But the carnage might actually have been worse if not for the heroic response of a marine tow crew, which was among the first on the crash scene and brought the circling, unmanned Contender under control in the dark water.
Now Vincent Morenza, a crew member on the Atlantis Marine Towing and Salvage boat, tells Riptide -- in his first interview about that night -- that he and the boat's captain, Burt Korpela, had watched the fireworks from the water; they were relaxing and waiting for the usual rush back to shore to end when they heard chaotic calls about the crash over the VHF radio. When they arrived on the scene less than five minutes later, Morenza glimpsed through the darkness a boat going in circles around 25 or 30 mph, barely lit, and with its stereo on full blast.
"Man, it was eerie," Morenza says.
Korpela, a skilled sailor, piloted his boat near the circling Contender; the plan was for Morenza, at the boat's stern, to release a line from the back of the boat that would get tangled in the Contender's propellers and stop it. But while Morenza was preparing the line, he suddenly heard his captain yell, "Jump!"
"I looked over the left-hand side of the boat, saw the tower -- the T-top tower for the Contender -- right next to our boat," Morenza says. "I didn't ask any questions. I jumped."
Morenza landed in the driver's seat of the Contender and immediately thrust the throttle to neutral; then he turned down the music so he could communicate with Korpela. "At that point he told me to go up and check for pulses," Morenza says. "I didn't even realize there were two bodies on board."
Morenza, age 28 and a former member of the Coast Guard, walked to the front of the boat, where he saw two young women knocked out on the deck. One, a blonde, was lying with her head toward the bow, and the other, Morenza says, was a brunette whose head was facing the opposite way. The two bodies were touching each other, as if snuggling, and he heard a kind of gurgling sound coming from the dark-haired girl.
Morenza checked for pulses, but within two minutes the Coast Guard and fire rescue had both arrived, and the authorities rushed onto the Contender and took the two women away on backboards. The blonde was later identified as 24-year-old Kelsie Karpiak, who was pronounced dead minutes later upon arrival at Jackson Memorial Hospital; the brunette was Catherine Payan, who weeks later remained in a coma at Ryder Trauma Center. The two were best friends from Miami Palmetto Senior High.
Morenza says he and his boss, whom he calls the best boat driver he's ever seen, kept their cool during the operation.
"Honestly, at that point it was all business," he says.
"It's like any good boater should do. If you know how to do something like that, you do it. You put everything aside and you help."
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The investigation into the crash remains ongoing.