Emergency workers carry an injured person on a stretcher July 4 after three boats collided near a Miami marina after a fireworks display. Four were killed and a dozen others injured. / Lt. Ignatius Carroll Jr.. Miami Fire Rescue via AP
MIAMI - The Labor Day weekend signals the unofficial end of summer, and thousands of Americans will take advantage by taking one more cruise on a boat.
For some in South Florida, that crush of people on the nation's waterways is terrifying.
Florida is the nation's leader in recreational boating accidents and deaths. Last year, 685 accidents led to 58 deaths in Florida waters, and many in the area feel governments aren't doing enough to crack down on intoxicated boat operators or add medical and firefighting vessels to their fleets.
Jack Garcia, a retired firefighter in Miami-Dade County, will spend this weekend on his 23-foot boat with CPR-trained friends to help people who get injured amid the drinking and partying that come with a holiday weekend on the water. Garcia's son, Andrew, died when his boat collided with two others boats in Biscayne Bay on July 4, leaving four people dead and several others seriously injured.
Garcia says local governments took far too long to respond - he helped find the bodies of his son and a passenger that night - and have done nothing in the weeks since to improve safety on the water.
"They don't get it," says Garcia, 55, who worked on a county fire boat until it was shut down for budget reasons in 2011. "We're going to render first-aid and assistance out there because there is no fire department coverage. No medical help at all."
Local law enforcement officials say they are trying to do their best with limited budgets. On Wednesday, a group of politicians and police chiefs announced enhanced police patrols throughout South Florida waters as part of a region-wide task force to address what has become an increasingly chaotic nautical scene.
Up and down Florida's coastlines, boats routinely gather on sandbars and shallow coastlines, anchoring or tying their boats together to spend the day drinking and having a good time. Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press says such parties have been common during major holidays over the years but have increased dramatically in just the few years.
"That's the new boating in South Florida. It went from two events a year to every weekend," says Press, whose daughter nearly died last year during one such gathering when a boat backed over her, slicing her leg with its propeller. "It's as chaotic as you can ever imagine."
But officials say there's only so much they can do to add more patrol or rescue boats.
Miami-Dade County spokesman Michael Hernandez says the county has been battling all year to fend off proposed budget cuts that would eliminate 450 police officer positions, so adding costly marine units isn't on the table. Press says his department has only one patrol boat, but hopes to add a second or third. Jorge Pino of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has the largest statewide presence on the water, says more state help is unlikely.
"Would we love to have 50 more positions on the water? Of course," he says. "But that's just unrealistic, so we have to make due with what we have."
The officers hope that this summer doesn't end the way it started.
"We're praying that by doing what we're doing now, being proactive, telling the public we're coming, we're going to be there, we have zero tolerance, our hopes are they all decide 'this is the wrong weekend,'" Press says. "Time to be responsible. Time to be safe."
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