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The Florida Keys can be paradise. Buffett and Hemingway vibe. Sunset celebrations. Bars everywhere.
The Keys can also be deadly.
Crashes on the Overseas Highway. Boating accidents. Dive drownings.
With a medical system that isn’t equipped to handle the most serious of injuries, it’s a tough place to get badly hurt. Trauma cases need to be airlifted to Miami, with just three small hospitals along the chain of islands.
And that’s if the helicopter is cleared to fly.
That’s what happened on Memorial Day when an Illinois mother was killed after a boat captain cut the line towing her, her son and her nephew in a parasailing rig.
The 33-year-old woman and two boys, all trapped in the parasail, were sent hurling down to the surface of the water and bouncing along the waves, as high winds propelled the parasail toward the old Seven Mile Bridge, then slammed them into the iconic span.
The two children were hurt — one seriously — but they are expected to live. The woman, Supraja Alaparthi, of Schaumburg, Illinois, didn’t make it to shore. She was dead by the time a boat captain who witnessed the harrowing crash got the three to a restaurant in the Middle Keys city of Marathon.
Bad weather kept a trauma helicopter on the ground for hours, delaying the transfer of one of the boys to a Miami-area hospital.
It was a reminder that while the Keys are a national treasure for visitors, there’s a deadly side to island life.
There have been other fatal parasailing accidents over the years. About a dozen people die every year while scuba diving and snorkeling. Car crashes kill drivers and pedestrians on the only road in and out.
Despite its status as a tourist hub, Monroe County is a rural area with limited medical and emergency services.
Only three hospitals sit along the entire 120-mile island chain, and none of them are equipped to handle the most serious of injuries. For major traumas, patients are airlifted by helicopter to medical centers in the Miami area. In the Memorial Day parasailing crash, which happened at about 5:20 p.m., one of the boys needed help that wasn’t available at the Keys hospital in Marathon.
But the weather was so bad that Monroe County’s TraumaStar medical helicopter was not able to take off until nearly 10 p.m., five hours later, according to the sheriff’s log. The chopper arrived at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital near South Miami shortly after 10:30 p.m.
Parasailing also turned deadly for two tourists in Key West two years ago.
A Key West boat captain remains charged with manslaughter by culpable negligence for the deaths of Nicholas Hayward, 37, of Costa Rica, and Azalea Silva, 29, of San Antonio, Texas.
Andrew John Santeiro is accused of causing the deaths by operating a Sunset Watersports boat in winds deemed too strong for parasailing under Florida law, according to the arrest warrant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. He has pleaded not guilty and the case is pending at the Monroe County Courthouse.
About a minute after the couple were put into the parasail flight, a strong gust of wind “pegged” the parasail —meaning the chute becomes controlled by the wind speed and not the operator of the vessel. The towline broke and the couple were dropped into the water and dragged for about seven to nine minutes until the parasail deflated.
Hayward died the day of the crash from drowning, the medical examiner said. Silva was airlifted to a Miami hospital and never regained consciousness.
She died July 1, 2021, nearly one year after the crash, from complications from a traumatic brain injury due to her injuries, the FWC said. Santeiro was arrested Aug. 25, 2021.
‘A very expensive lesson’
So far, 2022 is proving to be a more dangerous year on the water than last year.
Including Alaparthi, who died in the Memorial Day parasail tragedy, seven people were killed in Florida Keys boating accidents, compared with just two people in all of 2021, according to the FWC.
Only a week before the Memorial Day parasailing tragedy that left a young mother dead, another visitor died in a boating crash in the shallow Florida Bay water off Indian Key Fill in the Upper Keys.
The Texas man was killed after the boat he was on hit a concrete power line pole, fish and wildlife police said. After the boat, a 22-foot Hydra-Sport center console, crashed into the pole, the driver and six passengers were ejected into the water. The boat continued to spin in circles, as nearby boaters frantically pulled the people floating in the water out of its path.
Every time there’s a boating crash in the Keys, the state officers who patrol the waters have the same thought, said Capt. David Dipre, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“I wish people would know what we know,” Dipre said, recalling instances of boaters running into the mangroves. “He probably won’t make the same mistake again. Others don’t learn from those mistakes. A very expensive lesson.”
Such crashes have been fatal in the Keys, including one a year ago that left a 58-year-old Key Largo man dead. FWC said the boater had been driving erratically and at a high rate of speed.
Dipre declined to comment on the Memorial Day parasailing fatality. But as a 22-year veteran of FWC, he has seen it all when things go south on the water. Often, boating troubles such as sinking or being left stranded could have been prevented by a simple safety check of the vessel.
“All kinds of things can happen,” Dipre said. “Please don’t take boating safety for granted. It’s one thing to break down on the highway. You can stand by your car forever waiting for help.”
FWC and the Coast Guard cover the Keys waters well, Dipre said. Commercial fishermen know to check their vessels all the time he said, to stay afloat and in business.
“We have a great deal of boating going on that’s done safe and done right,” Dipre said. “People don’t talk about the good things. Tragedies always stand out.”
Trouble on the Keys’ only highway
The Overseas Highway has killer views of the ocean and gulf but, it’s largely a two-lane road made up of dozens of bridges. The fastest you can get up to on this stretch of U.S. 1 is 55 mph, but the limits are lower in spots.
Until you hit downtown Key West, you’re looking at moving at 50 mph for most of your trip. A crash or breakdown can tie up the road for hours.
To keep up with traffic problems on the Overseas Highway, the only road that connects the Keys, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office app is a must-have. The app, available on Apple or Google Play, alerts people to traffic jams, crashes and offers real-time details of any lane closures.
“Don’t be surprised by traffic jams,” said Adam Linhardt, the sheriff’s office spokesman. “Plan for that. Drive with the flow of traffic. Driving dangerously and recklessly is particularly dangerous on U.S. 1 because of the traffic and the fact it’s the only road.”
The highway can also be deadly, and some crashes are so tragic, they make the news far outside Monroe County.
In March 2018, for instance, four women from Spain vacationing in South Florida were waiting in their rented Nissan Rogue to make a left turn onto a popular roadside beach in Islamorada. While they were stopped in the middle of U.S. 1 with their wheels turned, a work truck transporting portable toilets slammed into the back of their car, sending it into the path of an oncoming RV.
The large vehicle couldn’t stop in time and barreled into the smaller car, crushing it and hurling it into a roadside tree. The women — Margarita Cortes-Pardo, 31; Maria Lopez-Bermejo Rossello, 31; Teresa Sanchez Quetglas, 30, and Ana Gaitan Diaz, 31 — were killed instantly.
In all of 2021, 20 people died in car crashes on U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, said Lt. Kathleen McKinney, Florida Highway Patrol subdistrict commander for Monroe County.
So far this year, four people died on the highway, McKinney said.
Keys crimes that got the world’s attention
Overall, the Keys are a safe place when it comes to crime. In Key West, bicycle theft is one of the biggest threats.
The sheriff’s office’s most common warnings are to drive safely and watch out for burglary and theft — particularly fishing and boating gear. Expensive rods and reels are often left within easy access of thieves who count on tourists to let their guard down here.
“In the Upper Keys, we see a lot of fishing rod thefts,” Linhardt said. “We have very low crime, but we still have burglary and theft like anywhere else.”
Violent crime is rare in the Keys, with mostly domestic cases or drunken scraps on Duval Street. But when homicides happen …
On Oct. 15, 2015, a Tavernier couple was found shot dead execution-style inside their home, each with one .45-caliber bullet to the head. Monroe County detectives made an arrest in March 2016.
Investigators said the convicted shooter, Jeremy McCauley, found a large stash of cocaine floating in the ocean while working his day job as a charter fishing boat mate. He employed his friends to sell it on the local retail drug market. One of his friends, Carlos Ortiz, began demanding more money, or he was going to the cops. Detectives say McCauley and a getaway driver went to the house where Ortiz was staying with his girlfriend, Tara Rosado, and killed them both to shut Ortiz up.
In December 2012, a retired high-ranking Coast Guard warrant officer put a hit on a city of Marathon businessman. The Coastie, Dennis Zecca offered the would-be hitman either a kilo of cocaine or $20,000 to shoot Bruce Schmitt in the head.
Court records since unsealed show Zecca was likely the middleman in the scheme, but no one else has been implicated. Unknown to Zecca was that his trigger man was already cooperating with the DEA in a coke investigation against him. The snitch told his DEA handlers, who in turn told the FBI.
Agents faked Schmitt’s death, and the informant, while wearing a wire, showed Zecca a bogus picture showing Schmitt’s body lying in a pool of blood. He was arrested when he left to get the hitman his money for doing the murder.
In July 2007, a Key Largo firefighter checking on his boat smelled a foul odor coming from inside his friend’s small yacht docked in the slip next to his.
The firefighter went inside 62-year-old Edward Bozarth’s boat, the Screw U 2, and eventually found his bludgeoned body stuffed in the vessel’s engine room. It would be five years later, in March 2012, until detectives arrested his then 40-year-old wife, Denise Bozarth, in her husband’s murder.
Her friends told detectives that Denise had talked about killing Edward before, and she reportedly tried to hire a former boyfriend to do the deed. Eventually, she did the deed herself by cracking his head open with a hammer. She expected to come into $650,000 that her husband had inherited from his mother shortly before he was killed, cops said.
Scuba diving deaths
The Keys are a worldwide diving destination. The island chain contains the United States’ only coral barrier reef. All of the Keys are located within a federally protected barrier known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Some areas, like Molasses Reef off Key Largo, are off-limits to fishing, so when you dive off the boat, there is so much sea life teeming beneath the surface you almost feel like you’re inside an aquarium.
But some aquatic adventures turn deadly. People die every year either scuba diving or snorkeling in the Keys. A review of autopsy reports from the Monroe County Medical Examiner show many people simply drown. Others, suffer medical emergencies that may not have happened if they weren’t in the water.
So far this year, three people have died diving or snorkeling in the Keys, according to a review of information released by the sheriff’s office. Last year, there were 11 diving and snorkeling deaths in the county.
Among the most recent notable deaths in the water:
On Jan. 31, 2017, famed Canadian conservationist filmmaker Rob Stewart emerged from a 220-foot scuba dive on a shipwreck off Islamorada. He was in the Keys making a documentary about sharks. Minutes after he surfaced, he disappeared below the waves. Three days later, his body was found on the ocean floor close to where he was last seen.
The incident sparked international headlines, a book and a documentary detailing everything that went wrong in the case — from the planning of the dive, the recovery of his body and flaws with the official investigation.
In 2007, five years after the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove troop transport ship was intentionally sunk to be used by divers and fish as an artificial reef, three experienced divers from New Jersey went deep inside the wreck on what’s known as a “penetration dive.”
Two of the men, Jonathan Walsweer, 38, and Scott Stanley, 51, never made it out alive. A Key Largo rescue team found their bodies near the ship’s pump room. Their friend, Kevin Coughlin, escaped the ship, but died trying to reach the surface of the ocean.
Six years later, the ship became another seasoned diver’s watery grave. Like the New Jersey divers, Joseph Dragojevich, then 43, was doing a penetration dive on the Spiegel Grove. The then-chief of the Lake County Medical Emergency Services Department was found by rescuers in a dark, claustrophobic space of the ship, far from the nearest exit.