By 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July, the bacchanal at Nixon sandbar just off Key Biscayne is in full swing. A few hundred feet from the sprawling waterfront mansions of Harbor Drive, dozens of women in bikinis gyrate atop boats, strangers with supersoakers generously squirt rum into one another's mouths, and a half-dozen different house beats blare simultaneously from loudspeakers.
In the waist-deep water in front of the loudest boats, a group of nine young women gathers for a picture. Holding mugs and beer cans, they wrap arms around sun-kissed shoulders while laughing and squealing for the camera.
"You have fun — that's all you do!" exclaims Jessie, a 20-something with bright-pink lipstick, hot-yellow nail polish, and generous curves spilling out of her black top.
Wading through the water a few feet away, a stocky, middle-aged man holds a red plastic cup in his left hand. He has a clipped brown goatee and prominent sideburns. He's shirtless but wears a black bandanna that says "Bad Dog" — a kind of Hell's Angel at the beach. The Angel, who later says his name is Juan, flashes a big grin and grabs a handful of Jessie's right breast. Then he immediately releases it and does the same to her left, as if shaking hands. She smiles.
Next, without hesitation, Juan moves on to another young woman nearby, also voluptuous. She's wearing a zebra-printed top. This time he squeezes the left first and then moves to the right. She isn't fazed either.
"Hey, I'm gifted!" Juan exclaims. "All girls like me to grab their tits. Watch this!"
He drifts several feet to his right, eager to prove his talent once again. Two other young women are locked in a close embrace and don't notice him approaching. Again Juan reaches with his right hand and grabs a left breast, then a right. Startled, the woman turns and lets out a shriek. She smiles and playfully grabs Juan's arm. Thirty seconds later, she's dancing, waving her arms back and forth above her head to the pulsing beat.
"Do you guys want to do the beer funnel?" Jessie shouts above the music.
Less than nine hours later, the holiday fun transforms into a marine hellscape. After spending the day at the sandbar, a 32-foot powerboat with five 20-somethings on board zips toward Dinner Key through the inky night. It's about 10:35, and suddenly the boat smashes into a 36-footer carrying a family of eight, spins out of control, and careens into a third vessel, a Boston Whaler. Blood from a half-dozen bodies pours into the water. Rescue workers pull out survivors and search for bodies floating in the ocean like kids' toys in a bathtub.
One week later, authorities had yet to determine the reason for the crash, but the devastation was clear. Four were dead and three critically injured, including one girl who remained in a coma. A half-dozen families were shattered.
"I've been doing law enforcement for 25 years," says Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) spokesman Jorge Pino. "I've never seen anything like that."
The July 4 crash instantly became the highest-profile — and deadliest — boating tragedy in recent local memory. But in South Florida, where a culture of hedonism routinely coincides with famously lax boating regulations, it wasn't the first. The area's second most notorious tragedy occurred just two months earlier, when a well-known local DJ, whose boat was stuck in the sand after a day of partying, gunned his motor and a 23-year-old security guard was killed by the whirling propellers.
The investigations into both incidents are still open. So far no one has been charged.
"I've been out in every major event... I know what it's like," says Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press, whose own daughter nearly bled to death after being struck by a propeller at the sandbar last year. "This is legitimate. It's real. It's concerning. It's not going away."
With nearly 900,000 registered boats, Florida ranks as America's most popular place for boating — and also its deadliest. Last year alone, 62 people died in boating accidents in the state, the highest number in the nation. Over the past five years, 327 have died, giving Florida the highest fatality rate among large states.
Nearly two-thirds of the operators involved in Florida fatalities last year had no formal marine safety training. In the Sunshine State, where the powerful boating industry has long had a hold on legislation, there's no legal minimum age requirement to operate a boat. And for anyone born before 1988, no courses are required to legally pilot almost any recreational watercraft.
"It's a huge problem," Carlos Silva, a Coconut Grove attorney, says of Florida's lax regulation. "So many people are dying... The safety rules suck."
The pervasive culture of alcohol doesn't help, either. Though the same drinking-limit regulations apply in boats and cars, the reality is that laws are rarely enforced on the water, where multiple agencies often share jurisdiction and access is frequently difficult. In 2011, the most recent year for which state statistics are available, more than 55,000 DUI tickets were issued for Florida's 14 million registered land vehicles. On the water, where drinking is exceedingly common, only 237 citations were given in 2013 by the FWC, the agency that doles out the majority of BUIs — less than half of 1 percent of the number given on land.
Even at popular party sandbars like Nixon — named for the disgraced former president who used to vacation at a home nearby — boating under the influence arrests are almost never made. Pino, the FWC spokesman, says the agency has a policy of not disclosing the number of officers it has on patrol at a given location, but in June he defended the policing. "Typically on any weekend, we have enough officers patrolling to address any issue that may arise," he said. "This is not a law enforcement issue... It's an educational problem... People need to know that they shouldn't consume alcohol while driving a boat."
The drinking likely won't stop. Last year, alcohol was reported as a factor in ten of the state's 62 boating fatalities. That's probably an extremely conservative estimate, in part because of frequently delayed blood samples and laws that require Breathalyzer tests only when investigators observe explicit signs of intoxication. Among the Miami-Dade County alcohol-related casualties in 2013:
• A 35-year-old Hialeah woman was killed when her boat driver lost control and she became pinned against a MacArthur Causeway bridge fender.
• A 24-year-old Seattle man fell off his boat while urinating on rough seas southwest of Biscayne Channel; while being pulled back in, he suffered leg lacerations when a propeller struck him.
• A 36-year-old man sustained serious head and facial injuries when he stood up while the boat he was on traveled under a canal bridge near Westchester.
A review of the area's alcohol-related incidents shows they typically happened on clear days with good water conditions. The people involved tended to be young, in their 20s and 30s, and the boat operators were almost always male. Most of the accidents involved only one boat, and victims often admitted to careless behavior. After both legs of a 30-year-old man were broken and lacerated on a Sunday evening last August at the Nixon sandbar, one FWC officer wrote, "He just remembered jumping off the boat and getting struck by the propellers."
Indeed, over the past five years, alcohol use was listed as a contributing factor in 58 deaths and 146 injuries in Florida; in California, which has nearly as many registered boats, alcohol was listed as a factor in only 26 deaths and 86 injuries.
Just before 8 p.m. on a recent Monday, Isabel Castellanos sits on the oversize black sofa in her airy, stylishly decorated home just west of Florida International University's south campus. The Cuban-born Castellanos is 53 but could pass for younger, with a youthful demeanor and shoulder-length blond hair. At the site of a visitor, she smiles politely, but she's been crying all week — for the Fourth of July boating tragedy and for her own.
"Today he went missing," she says. "Tomorrow is the official day I call the anniversary, because that's the day they found his body."
In the summer of 2007, Castellanos' son Osmany — Ozzie to family and friends — was 23 and on top of the world. He was a lifeguard and looked the part, with a sculpted bronze body, bright-white smile, and handsome dark features. On a Sunday, he arranged to meet several friends at the Dinner Key boat ramp around noon. The temperature was nearing 90 degrees, and Ozzie wore white shorts and a white shirt. His best friend, Andy Figueredo, soon to become a City of Miami firefighter, was there, as was Jennifer Peña, an ex-girlfriend with whom Ozzie was still close.
The crew — 12 in all — loaded onto a boat driven by Kenneth Herzbrun, a 25-year-old Miami Beach Senior High graduate. Herzbrun didn't know Ozzie or most of the others, but he had been recruited to transport the group to Elliott Key by Alain Leon, a mutual friend. Herzbrun, who did not respond to a request for comment, was a longtime boater; the only photo of him on a high school yearbook site shows him reclining on a boat in Biscayne Bay with his arms crossed in a too-cool pose. But on land, he had a history as a daredevil: Four years earlier, on June 26, 2003, he was ordered to pay $335 and attend four hours of traffic school after racking up a reckless motorcycle driving charge, and since then he had received five other traffic citations. The most recent came two months before that Sunday on Elliott Key, when he got a speeding ticket for going 46 in a 30 mph zone.
Aboard Herzbrun's boat, a 2005 26-foot SeaVee with twin 175-horsepower engines, the group started partying. Investigators would later find evidence of a liquid smorgasbord: Bacardi Silver, Bacardi Hurricane, X-Rated Fusion Liqueur, Disaronno, Captain Morgan's, Courvoisier, Heineken, 35 empty Corona Extra bottles, Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Dole pineapple juice.
The group arrived at the packed Elliott Key sandbar around 1 p.m. They circled the crowd a few times and tied up next to Leon's boat, a Renegade, and four other vessels. There they drank, danced, and hopped on and off other boats. When an argument broke out involving Nathalie — one of the SeaVee passengers — and a girl from another boat, the friends spent half an hour or so yelling, then relocated the SeaVee and resumed partying.
By 6:30 p.m. the crowd was thinning, and Herzbrun and Leon decided to take off. The two boats idled alongside each other, the passengers chatting, until they passed the buoys marking the western edge of the sandbar. There they split up. Herzbrun and the SeaVee crew headed back toward Dinner Key in the soft light of a beautiful summer evening.
After about seven minutes, the SeaVee was traveling around 30 mph when Herzbrun announced to the group that everyone should hold on. In a stunt, he jerked the wheel fast to the left to make a sharp turn. (Herzbrun would tell investigators, in contradiction of ten other statements, that the boat careened after hitting a wave.)
Ozzie, who had been drinking heavily, was holding a rope and straddling the right side of the boat, facing forward with his left leg inside and right leg outside. Thirty seconds after the stunt, several girls began screaming, "Ozzie's gone! Ozzie's gone!" Herzbrun swung the SeaVee around and circled the area. A few of the friends jumped out and searched the water. Later, none of the passengers recalled hearing the propellers strike Ozzie. None saw any blood.
Amado Castellanos, Ozzie's father, a gentle soul who works as a plumber for the county, answered his home phone around 8 p.m. Through tears, Andy Figueredo Sr., the father of Ozzie's best friend, explained that Amado's son had somehow gone missing. Before the call was over, both Castellanos parents were hysterical. "What do you mean you can't find him?" they yelled. "He can't be lost! He loves to swim!"
Within an hour, two dozen friends and relatives had arrived at the Castellanos' house, and half an hour later, Amado, riding in his friend's Hummer, was on his way to Coconut Grove. Ozzie's younger brother Alex arrived at the marina a few minutes later, and in the pitch blackness, Amado, Alex, and Amado's friend Raul boarded Raul's boat. They set off, frantically shouting Ozzie's name into the darkness every couple of minutes. Daylight had already broken when the crew, exhausted and empty-handed, returned to the marina. Amado Castellanos slumped into the front seat of the Hummer, facing the water. He was still sitting there when, 20 minutes later, he saw a white rescue boat pulling in — and then the yellow tarp on the boat's open back.
At the house, Isabel Castellanos had been hysterical all night. Her friends hid the TV remotes just in case any news came on. She was inside when she saw the Hummer pull up. Her husband slowly walked toward the door. His head hung down. "He wouldn't look at me," Isabel says, her voice breaking, the tears coming fresh again. "And I figured it out."
The night of the incident, a state officer noted that Herzbrun gave statements about the route he had driven that contradicted his boat's GPS tracks; the next month, while the incident was still being probed, a state-contracted electrician discovered the tracks were gone. Investigators concluded Herzbrun had manually deleted the GPS data, which amounted to tampering with evidence. FWC investigators concluded that Herzbrun's actions — letting Ozzie sit on the gunwale and then making the sharp left turn — "constituted reckless operation/vessel homicide." The agency presented the findings to the State Attorney's Office, but prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges. Instead, Herzbrun was charged with a misdemeanor, for "violating navigational rules resulting in a boating accident." He accepted six months' probation and community service.
"A slap on the hand," Isabel Castellanos says.
Ozzie's parents filed a civil suit and ultimately recovered about $160,000 from Herzbrun's insurance company. But seven years later, Isabel is still outraged and fighting for change: She started an organization dedicated to boater safety, Ozzie's Angels, and for years has been lobbying legislators hard for stricter safety regulations and enforcement.
"In my son's case, FWC made mistakes. They didn't have cops to handle the situation," she says. "Lack of laws and mandatory education is what is killing our children out there."
The evening of June 11, three weeks before the Fourth of July accident off Dinner Key, 40 or so Key Biscayne residents filled rows of white-vinyl-covered folding chairs in a waterfront conference room at the Key Biscayne Yacht Club. In one corner of the room, under framed old photos of khaki-clad club members, was a spread with a vegetable platter, two types of crackers, spinach samosas, and pink lemonade. That evening the crowd, mostly middle-aged and elderly, many wearing dresses and polo shirts, had gathered for a discussion on the controversial topic du jour: the raucous weekend partying at Nixon sandbar.
To illustrate the problem, Melissa White, the spunky 38-year-old director of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation who was leading the forum, said she wanted to show a video. "It's a little graphic," she warned. To the soundtrack of "Make That Money" by rapper Rich Homie Quan ("Fucking four hoes, feeling like a pimp/That's a dip when I walk, not a limp"), young men and women on boats at the sandbar slap and flash skin, flaunt liquor bottles, dance, and mime rap lyrics. At one point in the video, the protagonist, a muscular tough guy with a gaudy gold chain and a flat-billed Brooklyn Nets hat, holds up a large black bottle of Luc Belaire Rare Rosé sparkling wine. Then, on the deck of a boat, he pulls back the blue bikini bottom of a pretty brunette and pours the wine down her partially exposed backside. Another bikini-clad girl enthusiastically slaps the brunette's ass.
For a minute or so, the Key Biscayne crowd watches in what feels like a tense silence. "Is that your boat, Jim?" a man in the back of the conference room quips. The crowd laughs, but not for long. Soon the outrage pours out. "It's completely out of control, and we've got to do something," one resident says. "If my kids were there, I would be extremely upset," says another.
The forum was intended for discussion and to educate residents about the village's intention to shut down the enormous party in its backyard — the same party that advocates say has led to a spate of gruesome deaths similar to those off Dinner Key on the Fourth of July.
On May 27, a couple of weeks before the discussion, the Key Biscayne village council had preliminarily approved a motion to ban motorboats from a 12-acre section of the 60-acre area around the sandbar under the village's jurisdiction. The move for the ban actually began several years ago as an effort to preserve the area's natural seagrass, which was being trampled by increased human traffic. But that effort fizzled. Now, with the parties escalating — and the deaths and injuries piling up — the movement became less about saving seagrass and more about saving people.
"If the behavior out there is so bad that human life is in danger," White said later, "how many people... are going to care about the environment?"
Just in the past year, the sandbar has, in fact, experienced a staggering amount of trauma: Last September at an event known as the Lobster Toss, Danielle Press, the 26-year-old daughter of Key Biscayne's police chief, was nearly killed on the sandbar when she was sucked into the propeller of a boat and her legs were severely lacerated. The next month, Juan Flores, a Venezuelan national visiting family members, died when he dove into the water — not realizing it was shallow — and broke his neck. This past February, 24-year-old Lauren Alba's arm was mangled when she was asked to push a stuck boat and then got sucked into the spinning propeller.
But for authorities seeking to implement the motorboat ban, nothing was more frustrating than May 4, the day of the infamous DJ Laz accident. Many had seen it coming for weeks.
In April, radio personality DJ Laz, real name Lazaro Mendez — locally famous for '90s mashup hits like "Mami El Negro" and for his long stint on Power 96 — began promoting a huge party. It was to be hosted by Voli Vodka, the brand made famous by Laz's friend Pitbull. Laz posted promos of the event to his 24,000 Twitter followers; the tweets typically featured a picture of a bright-orange hydro boat with the word "Voli" emblazoned on the side. "Get ready starting May 4," he went on, linking to his, Pitbull's, and Voli's social media pages. "The party is at Nixxon [sic] Sand Bar."
When the Key Biscayne Police Department, which has only one boat, learned of the event, the agency knew it would be overwhelmed. So it sought help, and on May 4 a dozen agencies, from the Golden Beach Marine Patrol to the U.S. Coast Guard, sent officers to patrol.
It didn't matter. Tasked with policing hundreds of boats, many of which were tied together — a common practice at sandbars to facilitate socializing but which also creates a de facto barrier against police — the authorities were outmatched. Around 6:30 p.m., after a day of free-flowing vodka, Laz's boat got stuck on the sandbar when he tried to leave. The DJ stayed at the wheel as a few men began pushing the boat from the sides, trying to maneuver it into deeper water.
Ernesto Hernandez, a burly 23-year-old who had just graduated from the police academy, saw a chance to lend his considerable muscle. He waded over and put his shoulder to the hull. Laz, an experienced boater, engaged the throttle, sending the boat's four engine propellers whirring.
One photo later posted on Instagram by NBC 6 shows water spraying five feet into the air as three men push the boat. Hernandez, possibly after being bumped by the boat, lost his footing and was pulled into the propellers, which sliced right through his left thigh, hip, and large torso, staining the water red with blood.
"This is a very popular area where boaters come every weekend to have fun, enjoy themselves, and drink and party," the FWC's Pino said after the tragedy. "Unfortunately, every now and then we have an incident such as this."
That day the combined agencies patrolling the area conducted 122 vessel inspections. They issued 43 written warnings and 24 uniform citations for minor infractions like improper registration. But not a single BUI citation was given. It later came out that shortly after the incident, Laz was asked to take a Breathalyzer test but declined. Investigators on the scene found no probable cause, so he wasn't obligated to comply.
At the forum, residents reached a consensus that the partying was out of control, although not everyone agreed banning motorboats was the right solution. "What concerns me is you keep calling this step number one," a middle-aged man in a white shirt said. "So where does it stop? At the end of the day, you've got to enforce the laws."
On June 17, six days later, the Key Biscayne village council unanimously approved the second reading of the ordinance, cementing the village's initiative to block off the 12 acres. But the effort was essentially symbolic: The other 48 acres of the area known as the Mashta Flats would be unaffected because they didn't fall under Key Biscayne's jurisdiction, and the village would still need state ratification to block off its part.
Key Biscayne petitioned the state for help with the ban and enforcement, but three weeks later, on the eve of July 4, village police were again staring at a huge water party without many resources to control it.
"There will be enforcement out there," Key Biscayne Police Lt. Jason Younes said the evening of July 3. "But nothing special or anything out of the ordinary."
The Monday after the bloody Fourth of July crash, Craig Karpiak looked like hell. It was just after noon when the middle-aged man with the calm air of a pastor walked out of his family's simple ranch house in a neat Palmetto Bay neighborhood. The cars of friends and relatives filled the semicircular driveway, and Karpiak wore shorts and a white baseball cap over his roundish, weather-worn face. His deep-set eyes were red with emotion, and when he spoke, his voice was low and soft and unbearably sad.
"Nothing matters except she's gone," he said. "That's my daughter. That's all I can really come to terms with right now."
Three days earlier, 24-year-old Kelsie Karpiak had been asleep on her family's couch when she was awakened by a phone call from Catherine Payan, Kelsie's mother Rosanna would later tell the Miami Herald. Catherine was Kelsie's best friend from Miami Palmetto Senior High, where the golden-blond Kelsie had been a cheerleader before heading off to the University of North Florida. Catherine, a pretty 24-year-old with thick black hair, invited Kelsie to spend the holiday on a boat. Kelsie agreed.
The pair and several other friends, along with Kelsie's twin brother Kevin and older brother CJ, in town visiting from Chicago, hung out on the sandbar. "Nooow I'm home," CJ Karpiak posted on Facebook in the early afternoon, tagging Nixon beach with a smiley face. Also tagged in the post were Kevin and Catherine.
In the evening, the group, like scores of others, watched the fireworks from the boat in the bay. Afterward, five of the friends — Kelsie, Catherine, Victoria "Tori" Dempsey, Samantha Rolph, and Andrew Garcia, who was driving his father Jack's 32-foot Contender — were ready to head back to shore, where they planned to eat at Monty's in Coconut Grove.
Eight people aboard a 36-foot Carrera had also celebrated the holiday on the water. After visiting Elliott Key, the extended Hanono family — Heather, Elias, Lynda, Shawn, Emma, and Ella Hanono, as well as Jason Soleimani and Dayanara Arias — spent time swimming near Bayfront Park. At sunset, 22-year-old Heather kissed Jason, a law student from Long Island and her soon-to-be fiancé, Local 10 reported. Despite having two young children on board — 5-year-old Emma and 2-year-old Ella — the group wasn't in a hurry to get back to Dinner Key after the fireworks. Instead they cruised around, lapping up the last moments of a long summer day on the bay.
Around 10:35, Heather Hanono saw what must have been a white blur in the darkness. It was the Contender coming straight at them. She screamed, and a few seconds later, the 32-footer slammed directly into the starboard side of the family's boat, instantly ripping apart its hull. Andrew, Tori, and Samantha were thrown into the dark water; Kelsie and Catherine remained on the boat but were knocked unconscious. With no one at the wheel, the Contender began spinning in circles, eventually slamming into the left side of a third boat, a Boston Whaler carrying nine.
"Pon pon pon pon pon," came the initial Coast Guard call, at 10:37. "Report of a vessel collision with injuries in the vicinity of Key Biscayne. All vessels are requested to keep a sharp lookout."
The first on the scene was a sailboat. With the Contender still circling and panic beginning to unfold, Fritzie Simmons, a nurse, saw the gaping hole in the Carrera and jumped on board. She tried to treat Jason and felt a light pulse. A marine tow vehicle noticed the circling Contender and the two bodies on board; after maneuvering his boat next to it, a crew member leaped aboard and brought the vessel under control.
By the time authorities arrived minutes later, Jason was dead. Catherine and Kelsie were rushed to shore and then to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Kelsie was pronounced dead. The bodies of Andrew and Tori were recovered the next day. Catherine, as of last week, was in a coma at Ryder Trauma Center. Rolph sustained serious head injuries and was taken to Kendall Regional Medical Center.
The following Tuesday, Pino, the FWC spokesman, confirmed that evidence of alcohol consumption had been found on the Contender, but he declined to provide specifics. The incident is being treated as a homicide investigation, with a clearer picture of events — and the reason for the crash — not likely to emerge for weeks.
After the bodies had been recovered and while families were still planning funerals, serious questions about the rescue operation also surfaced. By 2 a.m., with the bodies of Andrew and Tori still missing, the Miami Fire Department called off its search for the night, as did most other agencies, CBS 4 reported. Outraged that the rescue operation had effectively been put on hold, Andrew's dad Jack, a recently retired 30-year Miami-Dade County firefighter, took the search into his own hands, boarding a boat with Tori's father and two off-duty firemen.
"I got there, and my boy and the other girl were still out there," Jack Garcia told CBS 4. "I know our guys weren't there, there was no effective search going on, and I didn't want to wait two or three days for my son's body to float up."
Miami-Dade's fireboat program had been cut three years ago, so the county fire department had no boats on the water. Amid public heat over the lack of county rescue boats, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez publicly squabbled with the firefighters' union over funding and staffing issues, and Miami-Dade County Fire Chief Dave Downey admitted the rescue wasn't well organized. "One of my problems is there didn't seem to be a coordinated effort," he told CBS 4, "on our behalf or any of the other agencies."
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Around 7:30 the morning of July 5, Jack Garcia found Tori's corpse floating in the harbor, her body still warm. Her father was too distraught to identify her. Andrew's body wasn't pulled from the water until 3:30 that afternoon.
Now, with the shock and horror still reverberating, it's unclear whether the Fourth of July tragedy will have any impact on boating safety procedures or regulations. White, the Key Biscayne activist, isn't optimistic. "Honestly, I think that nothing is going to change," she says, "unless there is a concerted effort in Miami-Dade County to put an end to boating under the influence and start making waters safe."
The consequences of inaction may become apparent in three months, when the biggest boat party of the year kicks off on Columbus Day weekend. "Don't go to Elliott Key on Columbus Day weekend if peace and quiet is what you seek," Bob Janiskee writes in an article on the website National Parks Traveler. "Don't go there if it bothers you to see adult beverages consumed in prodigious quantities. Don't go there if you don't want to see bikini tops doffed for beads and beer."
Last November, Jack Garcia was featured in a CBS 4 segment about boating safety. Garcia had been assigned to one of the Miami-Dade fireboats that were retired due to budget cuts, and he angrily called the lack of resources a huge safety issue. "When people die on the water, nobody cares or nobody says anything," he said. "If somebody out there needs help, they're not going to get it, and they're gonna die."