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.

"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."

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.

Lifeguard Osmany "Ozzie" Castellanos (top) was killed after falling off a boat in July 2007; he had spent the day partying with friends at Elliott Key.
Photo courtesy of Isabel Castellanos
Lifeguard Osmany "Ozzie" Castellanos (top) was killed after falling off a boat in July 2007; he had spent the day partying with friends at Elliott Key.
Lauren Alba's hand was mangled in February when it was sucked into a propeller at Nixon sandbar.
Courtesy of Carlos Silva
Lauren Alba's hand was mangled in February when it was sucked into a propeller at Nixon sandbar.

"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."

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5 comments
marionwlee
marionwlee

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flynlawr
flynlawr

Danielle Press' tragic injury occurred on September 14, 2013 when she jumped off a boat near Key Biscayne and was struck by the prop. The Columbus Day Regatta was held on October 11 and 12 and does not go anywhere near either Key Biscayne or Elliott Key. I fail to see the connection with her injuries and the power boat craziness at Elliott Key on Columbus Day Weekend and the Columbus Day Regatta. Better fact checking, please!

Jay Wood

Member, Columbus Day Regatta Committee

Shawn Weaver
Shawn Weaver

Maybe its time to focus on people and worry less about turtles

 
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