Several Memorial Day weekend boat accidents on Smith Mountain Lake; man warns about boat safety

BEDFORD COUNTY (WSLS 10) - The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is urging you to take proper safety precautions if you head out on boats and jet skis this summer.

Memorial Day weekend alone, the department responded to a boat crash, two possible drownings, and Monday a fire on a 28 foot boat in the middle of Smith Mountain Lake.

The department believes the boat fire was electrical in nature.

Both the man and woman on board were treated on-scene for smoke inhalation, but were not taken to the hospital.

The boat was towed to the Pelican Point marina.

One man who survived a jet-ski fire says he hopes his frightening tale will encourage others to take precautions before taking to the water.

On one of the last days of Summer, September 19th last year, Wayne Fitzgerald headed down to his dock to use his jet-ski.

"This is the home-made jet-ski lift that the jet-ski was sitting on," said Fitzgerald.

The battery in the vehicle wasn't fully charged, so he decided to give it a jump.

"I was obviously hooking the cables to the jet ski and next thing I knew it had blew me backwards about 10 or 12 feet," said Fitzgerald.

Later, experts would tell him the jet-ski had a bad gas line, allowing fumes to leak into the body that ignited when he used the jumper cables.

"It happened so quick, and I guess it was like a 6 foot fireball came up out of the jet ski," said Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald's arms, chest and face all had third degree burns.

He was burned on about 12 percent of his body, and it could have been worse.

"This is probably, they tell me, the life jacket that actually saved my life," said Fitzgerald.

Emergency Medical Technicians with the Moneta Rescue Squad rushed Fitzgerald to the emergency room at Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

"The doctor in the ER said Mr. Fitzgerald, what's wrong with you we can't fix you. He said we have to put you in a helicopter and send you to Wake Forest University," said Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald underwent several treatments, including skin grafts taken from his legs to cover his arms.

After months of recovery, Fitzgerald is back home, and the jet-ski is gathering dust in his driveway, but Fitzgerald says now, he has a new outlook on boating safety.

"We need to not get in a hurry and take things slowly when you're working on a watercraft, or you're putting gas in a watercraft, or you're trying to jump start a watercraft," said Fitzgerald.

He hopes his experience can teach others to take time and care before enjoying themselves on the water this Summer.

"If we could help save one person on this lake or anywhere, it would be worth me getting burned," said Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald does still use a boat he owns every now and then, but says he's careful when filling it with gas.

He says it's also important to make sure to get vehicles inspected.

Meanwhile, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries says they plan to step up safety patrols this Summer on the lake, making sure other types of unsafe behavior, like boating under the influence or excessive speed, are caught before anyone is hurt.