Fatal accident a maritime mystery

September 17, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

The gashed hull of a Boston whaler tells Cpl. Dennis W. Leland that a terrible hit-and-run accident occurred last weekend on the Chesapeake Bay, leaving a mother and son dead.

But there are few other clues to what happened a week ago near the mouth of the Choptank River in an accident that killed a sister-in-law and nephew of Montgomery County Executive Neal Potter.

Evidence does not tell police where the accident occurred. Or how it happened. Or even what type of boat hit the Boston whaler -- it could be as small as a motorboat or as large as an oil tanker.

To make matters worse, bodies and boat parts were spread over a 70-square-mile area of the bay, from Plum Point to Dares Beach on the Calvert County side and from Tilghman Island to Bloody Point on the Talbot County side.

"The hard part is trying to reconstruct the accident," Corporal Leland of the Maryland Natural Resources Police said at a Kent Island news conference yesterday.

"On a highway, debris is up and down the highway, but it doesn't move. With a boat, everything changes with the tides and the winds."

The only physical evidence from the accident, which occurred last Saturday night or early Sunday, is the 19-foot Thunder Bay. A 4-foot gash runs vertically from the railing to the underside of the hull of the fiberglass boat, which the Coast Guard found capsized in 32 feet of water about two miles off Plum Point Sunday morning.

That afternoon, police found the body of Jane Donner-Sweeney, 79, caught on a buoy line off Dares Beach. Wednesday, a boater spotted the body of her son, Michael Donner, 50, floating just south of Tilghman Island.

Both victims drowned, the state medical examiner's office has ruled. Ms. Donner-Sweeney had bruises on her head and might have suffered a concussion, police said.

The nature of the damage to the boat indicates that it probably was broadsided in the darkness, Corporal Leland said. Authorities are still trying to determine whether the boat's lights were working.

There are several possibilities, the corporal said. A boater might have been unaware of hitting the Thunder Bay or might have been drunk. Or the pilot of a large ship might never have seen the small Boston whaler, whose low profile makes it hard to detect on radar.

"Normally, when somebody hits something, they stop and look around," Corporal Leland said. "Hopefully, in this case, somebody will call and come forward. . . . Somebody may have . . . a conscience."

Mr. Donner, who was from Fairfax, Va., last spoke to relatives at 6:45 p.m. Saturday from his mother's house in Royal Oak. Later, he and his mother got into the boat and went to Harrison's Chesapeake House restaurant on Tilghman Island, where they had a dinner reservation for 8:30 p.m.

Ms. Donner-Sweeney ordered broiled bluefish, and her son ate filet mignon, Corporal Leland said. They split half a bottle of Chablis, and each had a cup of coffee and one scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert. They paid the $43.84 bill and left between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Investigators think Mr. Donner had stopped to gaze at the stars -- which friends said was a favorite pastime -- when the boat was broadsided.

Neither victim was wearing a life jacket, Corporal Leland said, though 10 were stored on the boat.

Police said they have questioned several people but have found no witnesses or suspects. They are scouring the bay looking for damaged boats and checking marinas and boat repair shops.

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