NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) – Two people died and three were rescued after a boat overturned Sunday in the James River.
James Barrick, Newport News Assistant Fire Chief, said the fire department responded to a call of an overturned boat at the end of the VMRC pier around 4:30 p.m. When fire crews arrived, Barrick said several people were in the water holding onto ropes thrown in by people on the fishing pier.
Laurie Naismith with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission said five people and a dog were on the boat when it sank. Naismith said the boat, a 1975 Manatee, was overloaded and it became swamped after the engine failed.
“There were really too many people for that size boat and according to the witness, the engine cut off and when the engine cut off they couldn’t steer the boat, wind picked them up and kept pushing them and water started coming over and kept coming,” said Naismith.
Naismith said all three survivors were taken to the hospital and treated for minor injuries. The dog was rescued as well.
The two victims have been identified as 52-year-old Philip Smallwood and 51-year-old William Smallwood, Jr. of Windsor, N.C. Family members say they were cousins and that both did not know how to swim. Philip was the oldest of 10 siblings.
Naismith said the boat was 14 feet long. She said it appeared the boat capsized on the Newport News side of the Monitor Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel.
Virginia Marine Police are investigating the accident. They have impounded the vessel and are examining the engine to see if any mechanical issues contributed.
Newport News police were the first people on scene Sunday. Sgt. Andy Shull said he and several officers ran the narrow Wavescreen Fishing Pier to get as close to the victims as possible.
Shull said by the time he reached the end of the pier, one of his officers had already jumped in the James River to rescue a teenager. As they saw a man who wasn’t responding, two more officers took off their shoes, vests and gun belts and jumped in the water.
“We all ran down the pier together,” said Shull. “Once they saw that there were two people in the water, one unconscious, one still conscious but taking in water, they both said, ‘I’m going in’ and they jumped in.’”
Naismith said members of the fire department also jumped in the water. Shull and other officers stayed on the dock to help pull people and the officers out of the water. They threw the officers ropes as they were trying to rescue victims.
The cause of the incident is still under investigation.
Dominique Ruffin and his friends may have been the first people to call 911. They were at the end of Wavescreen Pier fishing when they saw a man on the boat having trouble.
“They were trying to fix the boat,” said Ruffin. “The guy was scooping out water with a bucket. He ran to the front of the boat. The boat sunk.”
Ruffin, his friends and several other people fishing also tried to help the people in the water. Many had ropes they threw to the victims. They said the currents were very strong and pushing the people around in the water. Some of them were trying to hold onto the pier pilings as well.
Naismith said life jackets were found in the water around the boat, but it is unclear if the people were wearing them when the boat sank. Ruffin and his friends said four out of the five people did have the life jackets on.