Narrows Marina boat launch: Dark, deadly and unregulated

Private Tacoma ramp at Narrows Marina fools at least 8 drivers, leaves 4 people dead since 1997

Staff writerMay 4, 2014 

Gloria Smith believes she escaped from her rapidly flooding car last December to speak for the victims who no longer have a voice.

She got lost driving to Boathouse 19 at Narrows Marina in Tacoma and took a right turn at the dead end of South 19th Street.

“All of a sudden I just had water come rushing onto my windshield,” Smith told The News Tribune. “I never even realized I was in a boat launch.”

Michaela Baker wasn’t so lucky.

On a night almost three years ago, Baker found herself at the same dead end. Security camera footage shows her driving down the boat ramp and plowing into the water just before 1 a.m.

Her car was found around 7 a.m., submerged in about 10 feet of water with her body inside.

A News Tribune investigation found that at least eight cars have plunged into the water at the Narrows Marina boat launch over the past 17 years. Four of 11 occupants were killed. Another was left permanently disabled.

The accidents involved different types of people, from thieves outrunning the cops to an elderly couple who apparently got lost. Two drivers were drunk.

Records from the accidents paint a similar picture: All were the result of lost or confused motorists driving into the water by mistake. All happened in the dark. Most happened at or around high tide. Often it was raining.

The News Tribune found no government safety standards or guidelines specific to private boat launch facilities.

In fact, state and local officials sent a reporter in circles trying to pinpoint any regulations related to signs, lighting and other design standards.

The parcel of land that includes Narrows Marina and its boat ramp is owned and managed by Scott Wagner and Gordon Rush.

Rush, who isn’t as closely involved with the marina property as Wagner, was out of town and not easily reached. An assistant to Rush said he wouldn’t comment.

Wagner, who told The News Tribune he’s the primary contact for the property, declined to be interviewed for this story. He wouldn’t comment on the accidents or operations at the boat launch and surrounding properties.

Wagner also wouldn’t comment on any current or planned safety measures at the boat ramp, though new signs have popped up since the most recent accident.

DIFFERENT ACCIDENTS, SIMILAR STORIES

For decades, boaters have stored and launched their vessels at the Narrows Marina, stopping for fuel and supplies before cruising waterways in the shadow of the Tacoma Narrows bridges.

The area started attracting new attention after a restaurant and taproom opened on site in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Boathouse 19 and Narrows Brewing attract foodies and beer enthusiasts to the end of South 19th Street.

The old, nondescript boat ramp is squeezed between warehouse-like buildings opposite the marina’s bustling new businesses.

In daylight, two new signs — sturdier and more obvious than the ones that used to stand there — clearly alert drivers as they approach the water.

But at night, it’s possible to be fooled.

One light mounted high on a pole shines away from the signs, veiling everything beyond in darkness. At high tide, the calm waterline creeps to the top of the ramp. The combination creates the illusion of wet pavement or a large puddle as drivers approach the ramp through a narrow corridor, boxed in by a pay station and warehouse on the right.

Drivers might be tricked into thinking they can drive around the end of the building. In fact, it extends into the water.

“During hours of darkness you can’t really tell that it isn’t a roadway,” Tacoma Police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said.

A string of fatal accidents and close calls at the boat launch illustrates drivers’ confusion in the dark.

In documents requested by The News Tribune dating to 1997, the earliest fatality was 28-year-old Catherine Pieper, who drowned April 29, 1997. Police said she was confused and drove into the water by mistake, according to a News Tribune report.

“She was toward the back of the van, attempting to exit, but she was overcome by the water,” a Tacoma police spokesman said at the time, adding that investigators believe she tried to avoid crashing into the water.

Pieper’s body was discovered after a marina employee “making her rounds” found the car in the water just before 4 a.m., according to Tacoma police. Before Pieper was found, the worker saw the vehicle and “thought that it would be another ‘recovery’ so she called Gene’s Towing,” the police report states.

Pieper was last seen at a couple of bars in Tacoma, and a “partially full beer bottle” was found on the floorboard of her car. Toxicology reports showed she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.23 percent.

One witness said a car matching the description of Pieper’s was “driving erratically” westbound on Sixth Avenue just after midnight, according to the police report.

Pieper’s mother, Peggy Colegrove of Sequim, told The News Tribune that the accident likely wouldn’t have happened had her daughter been sober. Still, she said the launch was poorly marked and she believes security didn’t properly monitor the area.

“When my daughter died, there wasn’t any signage down there,” Colegrove said.

“I thought long and hard about suing,” she said, but decided against it. “It’s not going to bring my daughter back.”

A Bonney Lake couple was killed near the boat ramp on Feb. 15, 2005. Walter and Ethel Nash — 91 and 84 years old — drove into the water about 1:30 a.m., according to police. Their bodies were recovered several hours later.

“There were no skid marks visible on the boat ramp,” the police report states, “suggesting that the vehicle went into the water without attempting to stop.”

Security camera footage showed “no indication of brake lights until the vehicle struck the water and that the backup lights came on after that,” indicating an attempt to drive the car in reverse up the ramp.

Terry White, the couple’s daughter, told police her parents had been in Tacoma for a doctor’s appointment. She said her father “did all of the driving, and would get disoriented and lost easily,” according to the police report.

White told The News Tribune she is shocked that the property owners haven’t installed a barrier in front of the ramp.

“We thought that with all the news coverage and everything that they would have the decency to do the right thing,” she said.

Other accidents at the marina weren’t fatal, but parts of the story remain the same:

  • Jonathan Coggins, 31, ended up in the water after being chased by police. According to a 2008 News Tribune article, officers spotted a stolen car about 10 p.m. May 10, 2008, and tried to stop the driver, later identified as Coggins. The car sped off and officers initially pursued him until deeming it too dangerous.
    Eventually, Coggins drove into the water at the marina boat launch and was arrested as he came ashore. Records show a passenger in the vehicle, who was initially thought to be dead, was underwater for about 30 minutes before divers rescued him. He was hospitalized and sustained injuries that left him permanently and severely disabled.
  • Kenneth Knox drove in about 9:30 p.m. Feb. 22, 2009. The 84-year-old passed the boat launch signs, according to the police report, and suffered minor injuries once he hit the water. He was treated at the scene and cited for second-degree negligent driving.
  • A male driver and female passenger, later identified as Ricky Gillespie and Koren Mondragon, crashed into the water Nov. 16, 2012 sometime after 6 p.m., following a police pursuit that started in University Place. Gillespie was driving a reportedly stolen vehicle, and led officers on a high-speed chase that ended in the water at the marina. Gillespie escaped out the window, and Mondragon emerged moments after the car was completely submerged, according to the police report.
  • Latasha Billups, 48, of Seattle drove into the water about 5:15 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2012. She was able to get out of her car and told police she was lost and “does not do well driving in (the) dark.”

Michaela Baker got lost in the dark a year and a half earlier, but never found her way home.

UNFORTUNATE EVENTS TURN FATAL

Mother’s Day is a difficult time for Maria Baker. It was on that day in 2011 when she talked to her daughter for the last time.

“She was a little spitfire,” Baker said in a recent interview. “She was my baby.”

Michaela Baker called her mom that day — May 8 — asking if she could attend a friend’s wedding despite the holiday. After a “wonderful day” together at a baby shower the weekend before, Maria Baker was fine with her daughter’s plans.

Michaela, an aspiring cosmetologist, got dolled up in boots and a sundress and headed for the Key Peninsula. She shared laughs with friends, had some drinks and arranged to try a new bar in Tacoma with some other wedding guests.

Kelsie Cortez said she never knew Michaela to drink and drive.

“She was so careful,” she said of her friend, who was more like a sister to her. “There was always a (designated driver) around.”

Security camera footage shows Micaela Baker driving her car into the water at the boat ramp just before 1 a.m. on May 9, 2011. Police say she mistakenly drove down the ramp and drowned.

The women were together hours before the accident. Cortez said Michaela had three small drinks at the wedding reception and stayed at Cortez’s house on the Key Peninsula until she felt safe to drive to Tacoma and meet her friends.

Her mother said that was the beginning of the tragic end.

It started with a misplaced designated driver at the bar. Michaela had arranged a ride home to her Tacoma apartment. But when she didn’t see the driver, she wrongly assumed the friend had left. So she headed home alone and got lost trying to navigate her friends’ back-street directions.

The confusion landed her in the jumbled parking lots and roadways at Narrows Marina.

When she got to the boat launch it was dark, rainy and high tide.

At the time, Maria Baker said later, two signs meant to alert drivers about the ramp weren’t easily seen, and her daughter likely missed them. One was too high and tilted away from the roadway, she said; the other was “leaning on the base of the left post” on the ground, according to the police report.

Baker said her daughter should have known better than to drink and drive, but said the other fatalities at the boat launch point to a bigger safety issue.

“There’s a part of me that thinks she could have been stone-cold sober and this could have happened,” Baker said.

She considered suing on her daughter’s behalf, but couldn’t because of a state law that keeps family members from pursuing wrongful death cases for single adults without dependents.

The family’s lawyer said Michaela’s alcohol consumption would weaken any case. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.11, above the legal limit of 0.08.

The pursuit of litigation wasn’t about revenge or collecting damages, Baker said, but rather to pressure the property owners to make simple changes that could save lives.

Baker said she wants the boat ramp made safer “so somebody else doesn’t have to go through Christmas without their kid.”

“I don’t care about money,” she said. “I care that Michaela doesn’t have a voice.”

SURVIVOR SPEAKS

Gloria Smith’s commute to a dinner date with friends Dec. 12 quickly turned into a brush with death.

The 69-year-old Milton resident said she had seen Narrows Marina in daylight, but it was difficult to navigate at night. She said there was no fence, gate or caution lights to indicate she was about to drive down the ramp into the water.

After getting lost in the parking lots, she saw what she thought was a narrow road leading behind a warehouse. She thought the path would lead to the Boathouse 19 restaurant.

“I wasn’t driving fast, but to me the road looked the same as the water,” she said.

Smith didn’t see a small sign alerting drivers about the ramp until it was too late.

“It was just so dark down there,” she said.

Smith was driving into the boat launch, only she didn’t know it yet. It was high tide and the waterline calmly lingered near the top of the ramp, resembling wet pavement, she recalled.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘My gosh, that’s a horrendous mud puddle,’ ” Smith said.

Water quickly started rising inside her Subaru Outback. She put her foot on the brake and called 911 as the car’s electrical system shorted out, keeping her from opening any windows or doors. A bystander lodged a couple of big rocks under her tires, to stop the car from sliding farther down the ramp, and stayed with her until help arrived.

Eventually, the water was at Smith’s waistline.

“I was starting to get scared at this point,” she said.

Once rescue crews arrived, they propped open the trunk and Smith crawled over the seats and escaped through the back of the vehicle.

Right away, Smith recalled, a police officer told her not to feel silly about driving down the boat ramp; it wasn’t the first time this had happened.

“I’m not a feeble old lady wandering in the dark, and I’ve grown up around boats,” she told The News Tribune. “It just breaks my heart that people have actually died there.”

Smith hopes sharing her story will be the force that spurs change.

EIGHT ACCIDENTS: MANY OR FEW?

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Sources interviewed by The News Tribune said the area around the Narrows Marina boat launch is confusing to navigate. They were split about the severity of safety risks at the boat ramp.

Some said eight cars accidentally driving into the water over a span of nearly two decades doesn’t indicate a major problem. Others said the number is significant in an area that isn’t highly traveled.

Cool, the police department spokeswoman, said she has driven by the ramp several times, and it doesn’t look like a typical boat launch.

“I would imagine there have been other incidents that weren’t reported,” Cool said, noting that cars could have driven into the water and either avoided getting stuck or were towed without involving police.

A receptionist at Bill’s Towing chuckled when The News Tribune called to ask how often cars are pulled from the water at the ramp. She said it wasn’t an odd question: “It happens quite frequently.”

Company manager Bill Lomis was more reserved, stressing it happens “very seldom.”

Bill’s Towing contracts with Tacoma police and fire to recover vehicles at crime and accident scenes. The company’s coverage area includes all waterways.

Lomis has managed Bill’s Towing for 30 years and has personally responded to some of the accidents at Narrows Marina.

“It’s not a boat launch that’s well-known,” he said, noting that few boaters use it.

Lomis said that while calls for help at Narrows Marina are infrequent, his drivers have never responded to similar distress calls at other boat launches in the city.

“That one’s kind of hidden,” Lomis said of the Narrows Marina boat ramp. “The others are kind of in the open.”

LAYOUT CREATES ‘A MIRAGE’

Tacoma attorney Darrell Cochran said the boat launch is dangerous for drivers and a liability for the property owners.

Cochran hasn’t represented anyone in the Narrows Marina incidents but has worked on dozens of other wrongful death claims, including ones resulting from road design. If the marina owners were his clients, he said, he would recommend they improve lighting, signs and other conditions to make the property safer.

Cochran said he’s never heard of accidents like those at the boat ramp.

“This is really strange,” said Cochran, who visited the site and studied images of the area after being contacted by The News Tribune. “It is really one of the most poorly marked and poorly designed parking lots in a marina I’ve ever seen.”

The layout creates “a mirage” that funnels cars into the water, he said, adding that eight incidents with similar circumstances in a low-traffic area suggests “the property is attracting a dangerous situation.”

Cochran said it is an owner’s responsibility to clearly mark potential hazards. In the case of Narrows Marina, which has businesses that serve alcohol, there’s an expectation that people might have access to the ramp while impaired, he said.

LITTLE CHANGE, BIG CONCERNS

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Even three years later, Maria Baker said it feels like her daughter’s accident just happened.

“I still can’t look down when I go across the bridge,” she said. “I still see the helicopters.”

The urn that holds Michaela’s ashes is kept in her grandmother’s home. Maria Baker hasn’t seen it because it’s too painful.

“It’s almost harder now,” she said, choking back tears. “It’s taken a long time for the numbness to wear down.”

Baker is disappointed with the lack of action to alter the boat launch in the wake of the accidents.

Earlier this year, Baker wrote a letter to Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland urging the city to assess safety risks at the boat launch and expressing frustration with the property owners.

“This location has made NO changes for safety or in response to any of these deaths,” she wrote, adding that $20 at Home Depot could fix the ramp that she calls a “death trap.”

Baker wrote “I can’t wrap my head around” the owners’ lack of desire to make changes.

‘IT IS UP TO THE PROPERTY OWNER’

Tacoma Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver contacted Baker in response to the letter.

Kingsolver, who has two daughters, said he would try his best to help ease her concerns.

“I can’t imagine what she’s gone through,” he said.

Kingsolver said he had two conversations with Wagner about the boat launch. He said the property owner was willing to explore changes to improve visibility for customers.

“He was very open,” Kingsolver said. “Very receptive.”

After meeting with city engineers in February, Wagner told Kingsolver they’d identified potential changes to signs and street markings.

Because the city is not deeply involved in the effort and does not regulate design standards at boat launches, Kingsolver said he could not say whether the changes were completed.

“It is up to the property owner what signs to put up,” he said. “I really have no jurisdiction over it.”

A reporter’s visit to the site last month confirmed that signs recently had been updated. Both are more obvious than the old ones; new stop-sign graphics have been added next to the red writing over a yellow background. The tall, wobbly sign was replaced with a shorter one.

But no new lighting had been installed, and the single street light atop the power pole doesn’t illuminate the new signs.

Baker acknowledged Wagner’s efforts, but said they are inadequate. She said the signs are still so far apart that headlights miss them.

“I feel like it was a token thing,” she said of the new signs.

“I’m glad the signs have changed, but I don’t think it’s enough.”

She suggested that better lighting, rumble strips near the ramp and a reflective chain blocking unwanted access would help prevent future accidents.

“My goal is not to get this place shut down because the public enjoys it,” she said.

“But if they can’t make it safe, it needs to be.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682
kari.plog@thenewstribune.com
@KariPlog

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