It had been almost four years since a boat ramp at the Narrows Marina took the life of a young woman who got lost at the dead end of South 19th Street in Tacoma.
Early Wednesday, it claimed another victim — the seventh reported fatality there in nearly two decades.
Richard Gustafson, 88, drove into the water at the marina’s boat launch Tuesday night and died early Wednesday at a hospital.
Gustafson was reported missing from his Fircrest home around 3 p.m. Tuesday. Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said the man didn’t return on time, and his family became concerned.
Bystanders called 911 shortly after seeing a vehicle go into the water at the ramp around 9:30 p.m., about a half hour after high tide.
Divers rescued Gustafson from his vehicle, submerged in 13 feet of water, and he was transported to St. Joseph Medical Center. Troyer said he died about 1 a.m.
The Pierce County medical examiner said Wednesday that Gustafson drowned, and the death was ruled an accident.
The last time a car reportedly plunged into the water at the ramp was December 2013, and little has changed to address the recurring accidents.
A News Tribune investigation last year found that at least eight cars had plunged into the water there in the previous 17 years. Four of 11 people in the cars were killed. Another was left permanently disabled.
Victims ranged from an elderly couple to thieves trying to outrun the cops.
Records from the accidents revealed that all were the result of lost or confused drivers.
Conditions were similar, if not identical: All happened in the dark. Most happened at or around high tide. Often it was raining.
In the months after the News Tribune’s story was published last May, marina owners apparently made some changes to the boat launch, adding orange reflective lights on top of the yellow signs already posted at the ramp.
Even so, a reporter’s visit to the site about 2 a.m. Wednesday showed dark conditions similar to those reported in last year’s investigation.
By Wednesday afternoon, ramp access was blocked with a truck and a cement barrier.
After last year’s story, readers tipped off the newspaper about two other deaths at the marina. Subsequent records requests revealed one was a drunken driver, the other a suicide.
Until the death Wednesday, Michaela Baker was the most recent fatality at the Narrows Marina.
Security camera footage showed the 21-year-old Tacoma resident driving down the boat ramp and plowing into the water just before 1 a.m. May 9, 2011.
Her car was found around 7 a.m., submerged in about 10 feet of water with her body inside.
She had been drinking and chose to drive herself home after losing track of her ride just before the accident.
Her mother, Maria Baker, has fought since then to get the attention of the boat launch’s owners, who she says refuse to acknowledge her concerns or make an adequate effort to improve visibility and safety.
In an emotional interview Wednesday, Baker said she was disgusted but not surprised that the conversation about the marina hasn’t changed.
“I knew there would be more accidents,” she said. “I am just sickened that it was so fast.”
Fighting through tears, Baker said she is sorry for Gustafson’s family.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get it closed down or changed enough,” she said.
Baker’s sister, Margot Grim, said she’s tired of “reliving this nightmare.”
“We’ve done everything we can to get them to do the right thing,” she said of the marina owners. “I hate to think of other people going through what we’ve gone through.”
Grim said there’s been nowhere for people to grieve or discuss plans for action. So after word of Gustafson’s death spread Wednesday, she created the community Facebook page Narrows Marina Outcry for people to post updates and share their grief, anger and ideas for change. The page was steadily gaining followers after its creation Wednesday.
“Hopefully we can come together and have our voices heard collectively,” Grim said. “We’re not going to stop until they do the right thing. We won’t. We can’t.”
STILL NO REGULATIONS
A restaurant and a taproom — Boathouse 19 and Narrows Brewing — opened on the Narrows Marina property in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
The new businesses have drawn the general public to the area, which for decades was primarily frequented by boaters and fishermen.
The parcel of land that includes Narrows Marina and its boat ramp is owned and managed by Gordon Rush and Scott Wagner.
Wagner has said he’s the primary contact for the property. He did not return multiple calls for comment and was unavailable when a reporter visited his office Wednesday.
At the time of its original investigation, The News Tribune found no government safety standards or guidelines specific to private boat launch facilities.
State and federal regulations for boat ramps haven’t changed since publication of that story, said Rory Calhoun, who has worked for the state Recreation and Conservation Office for more than 20 years.
Calhoun is an accessibility specialist for the recreation office. He spoke with the newspaper for its original report.
“Boat launch standards are the same as they’ve always been,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t know of anything in the works to change that.”
Calhoun said he couldn’t comment about the design of a specific private facility. He said it isn’t unusual for deaths occasionally to happen at boat ramps, but not at the rate they’re occurring at the Narrows Marina.
“I have not heard about it anywhere,” Calhoun said. “Ever.”
He noted that engineers don’t design boat launches with the impression that commuters may drive into them, and it would be difficult for state regulators to draw up specific design standards.
“It would be up to (a marina) as a private entity to figure out what they need to do,” Calhoun said, “both the right thing to do and the legal thing to do.”
CITY OFFERS ASSISTANCE
Tacoma city officials didn’t pinpoint any circumstances under which they would intervene in safety measures at the private marina.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the city expressed sympathy for the latest victim’s family and noted that the ramp is on private property.
Officials met with the property owner last year to discuss possible signage improvement, according to the city’s statement, and they plan to meet with him again to “offer any assistance in identifying voluntary measures that the owner can implement to improve visibility and safety on the property.”
“Beyond voluntary measures taken by the property owner, the adoption of any regulations affecting this area would have to be explored with many stakeholders, including state officials, local property owners and city officials,” according to the statement. “Any such regulations would have to be approved by the state of Washington and would have city-wide application to all private and public boat launches.”
Jana Magoon, a planning manager for Tacoma’s Development Services Department who spoke with The News Tribune about the marina last year, reiterated Wednesday that the Narrows Marina is in compliance with city code.
But Baker, the still-grieving mother, said relying on the good faith of the marina owners isn’t working.
“It’s time for the city to get involved,” she said. “Nobody regulates this. It needs to be regulated.”