Seaplane crash spurs concern

Sharing space worries Selby Bay boaters

April 24, 1999|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

The day after an experimental seaplane crashed into Selby Bay, killing one man and seriously injuring another, local residents were calling the neighborly relationship between vehicles that take to the sky and vehicles that stick to the sea a recipe for disaster.

In just a couple square miles in and around Selby Bay, at least five marinas are filled with boats of every size and variety. And in the center of those piers is a waterfront property where seaplanes -- those loud aircraft suspended on banana-shaped pontoons -- take off.

Since local resident Ike Whitby started renting space in his waterfront back yard to seaplane owners about two years ago, boaters have watched their little bay turn into a busy runway. There has been a close call or two in addition to actual tragedy.

In July, a seaplane pilot came in too low over the docks at Anchor Yacht Basin and almost clipped a 40-foot luxury boat.

Thursday, when droves of firefighters, paramedics and police arrived at the scene of the seaplane crash in Selby Bay, locals said their predictions had come true.

"People have been talking about the dangers," said Helen Mueller, the owner of Anchor Yacht Basin marina. "There is the possibility of a big, fiery mess when you have slow-moving boats and fast-moving airplanes trying to share the same space."

Some in Selby Bay are terrified of airplanes falling out of the sky and killing boaters.

Their fears no longer seem unjustified after Thursday's crash in which John R. Sellors Jr., 74, of Sarasota, Fla., the passenger, died. His brother, pilot James H. Sellors, 70, of

Pasadena, was seriously injured and a patient at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Sellors' Pasadena neighbors said he had built the experimental plane in his front yard before parking it at Whitby's and that it sometimes took off in it from Park Creek, which runs between their houses.

"He would pull it up on the beach between our house and his house," said neighbor Lois Warner.

Boat owners were relieved that the crash didn't cause more damage. The plane did not hit any of the docked boats, many of which are houseboats.

"It could have been a lot worse," Mueller said. One employee at the Anchor Yacht Basin, hearing his boss' comment, raised his eyebrows and said, "Those experimental seaplanes are about as safe as sky-diving with a motor strapped to your back."

So soon after Sellors' death, those who frequent Selby Bay are wary of criticizing the pilots with whom they share the water.

"We don't want to cause problems," Mueller said, "but we're concerned about our customers, their property and their safety."

Whitby -- who Thursday had been renting space to three seaplanes and yesterday was down to two -- called the crash just "a fluke."

"They're pretty safe for the most part," he said. "And they don't usually pick up speed until they are quite a bit away from all the boats. Usually there is no trouble."

Still, residents are questioning whether the Whitby property has the proper zoning for part of it to be leased to seaplane owners. Residents say county officials have investigated several complaints and have deemed the use of the property acceptable.

John A. Morris, a spokesman for the county office of Planning and Code Enforcement, said from his home last night that he could not say whether the use of the land is proper without checking the zoning files in Annapolis.

Not everyone is complaining about the seaplanes.

"There is plenty of room for both of us," said Mary Ellen Neff, owner of the Selby Bay Sailing Center. "We can share the space. Plus they're fun to watch."

Sun staff writer Tanoah Morgan contributed to this article.

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