Suit filed in fatal Thunder on the Narrows crash
STEVENSVILLE — A federal lawsuit was filed Thursday, Aug. 25, seeking damages in the 2015 Thunder on the Narrows crash that killed 7-year-old Julianne Rosela of Chester. The suit was filed by 14 spectators and Julianne’s estate. The Coast Guard investigation of the crash is not yet complete.
The crash occurred at 4:45 p.m. June 28, 2015, during warmup laps for a race in the Grand National Hydroplane division. The GNH boats were the largest boats in the competition with a minimum length of 20 feet and a 468-cubic-inch engine capable of reaching speeds of 145 mph.
The collision occurred near the beginning of Turn 1 of the oval race course on Hogg Bay, when GNH-12 This is Heaven, driven by Philip J. Mitchell, left the course and struck part of the spectator fleet, according to Cmdr. Michael Keane, speaking at a press conference at Kent Island Yacht Club following the crash. He noted that in its 25 years of racing, Thunder on the Narrows had a very safe history.
Julianne and Jennifer Browning of Chester, who also was injured, were in an orange raft tied to the stern of the recreational boat Sea Monkey, which was tied to a 21-foot Sea Ray boat, which was tied another boat, Let’s Hook Up, which was tied to the boat A Shore Thing, which was tied to another raft and to a smaller 16-foot boat, according to the lawsuit.
In addition to Julianne’s estate, her parents Carrie Anne Rosela of Chester and Antonio Gapuz Rosela of Owings, and Browning, the suit is brought individually by Carrie Rosela, Michele L. Thomas of Chester, Gerald R. Maisel of Stevensville, Bertha Maisel of Stevensville, Allison Oyler of Chester, Nicholas Romanchick of Chester, Sara Ashley Walder of Queenstown, Joseph F. Walder Jr. of Queenstown, Raymond Louis Stokes III of Centreville, Julia Davidson Barton of Centreville, Ryan Michael Pribell of Stevensville and Mitchell Thomas of Chester on behalf of himself and his son. All were injured physically and/or emotionally by the crash, and some suffered property damage, according to Robert J. Weltchek of the Baltimore firm Weltchek, Mallahan & Weltchek, which represents 11 of the plaintiffs.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, against event sponsors the American Power Boat Association and the Kent Narrows Racing Association, as well as the owners of GNH-12, alleges blatant violations of numerous safety rules.
In a phone interview Thursday, Weltchek said the spectator fleet was allowed too close to the course, that the boat involved should never have been allowed to race, that it had a known defect identified in 2014, and that the driver had never raced a Grand National before and wasn’t qualified.
“There was a long list of things that went horribly wrong. It was his first time in the boat. It his first time in a hydroplane (Mitchell previously raced open cockpit vintage boats). He never established himself as a qualified racer,” Weltchek said.
“The plaintiffs are all boating people. They all love the water. They all love boat racing. This is just about stupidity,” he said.
According to the lawsuit, APBA rules require a distance of 250 feet from the race course to the spectator fleet, but the distance at Thunder on the Narrows was only a few feet from the outer edge of the course.
Earlier attempts to reach those involved were unsuccessful, Weltchek said. No one would return his calls.
“They can ignore me and my phone calls, but they can’t ignore the lawsuit,” he said.
He called the situation “outrageous. They never even said ‘sorry’ or anything.”
Weltchek said the case was filed in federal court because it involves maritime law, which typically falls under federal jurisdiction. The plaintiffs requested a jur y trial.
KNRA President Wheeler Baker of Chester said Thursday afternoon was the first he had heard of the lawsuit. He added the Coast Guard report wasn’t finished yet.
KNRA serves as host and “basically puts the race on,” he said, but APBA is the sanctioning body that oversees and runs the event.
“There was an APBA official there that signed off on everything,” Baker said. He referred further questions to APBA.
The Thunder on the Narrows hydroplane races were canceled this year after APBA changed depth guidelines and the Hogg Bay course no longer met the requirements.
The newspaper did not receive a call back from the APBA lawyer by press time.
Julianne Rosela of Chester died when a boat left the race course during the 2015 Thunder on the Narrows and crashed into the raft on which she was sitting.