UPDATE: On Friday, the marina's owners announced they are closing the boat ramp to public access and installing a permanent gate.
How many people must die before the owners of a deadly Tacoma boat ramp finally take action?
The death Wednesday of an elderly Fircrest man brings to seven the number of people who have been killed since 1997 after vehicles they were in plunged into the water after driving down the Narrows Marina boat ramp where South 19th Street dead ends.
To give that toll a little perspective, it’s more than twice the number of people who were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. One victim who survived being submerged in water is permanently disabled.
The accidents all happened at night, when it’s hard to tell that the ramp is a slope leading down into the water, not a road that circles around the building at the waterline. Rain and high tide heighten the illusion that the launch area is just the continuation of a wet road.
In some cases the drivers were lost or impaired in some way. Some were elderly and confused. Wednesday’s 88-year-old victim reportedly had memory loss issues and had been reported missing about six hours before the accident, which took place Tuesday evening.
The number of people driving in the vicinity has increased in recent years with the opening of the Boathouse 19 restaurant in 2012 and Narrows Brewing taproom in 2013. At least one driver who went into the water – and survived – had taken a wrong turn trying to get to the restaurant.
The problem of drivers mistakenly going down the ramp could be addressed by erecting some sort of barrier, even one that just operated at night, and installing rumble strips. But the owners of the marina – Scott Wagner and Gordon Rush – have made only minor changes, such as adding orange reflective lights on top of signs that already were there. Although the signs are very visible during the day, they were obviously not enough to alert Gustafson to the danger ahead in the dark.
A News Tribune investigation last May into the deaths at the marina found no specific state authority in charge of setting safety standards or rules pertaining to signs, lighting or other design components at private boat launches. And Tacoma city code fails to set any safety standards.
That has to change. City Council members apparently have time to spend on what businesses should pay their employees and what benefits they should have to provide. Perhaps the council could also spend a little time figuring out how to require a local business to operate more safely so that no one else is killed on its premises.
The lives of local citizens should be of concern to the city. Will it act before yet another person dies at Narrows Marina?