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9-Year-Old Girl Killed as Racing Boat Veers Ashore : Screaming Fans at Irvine Lake Flee When Craft Runs Amok

April 22, 1985|MARCIDA DODSON and DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writers

A 9-year-old girl was killed and another person was injured Sunday when a speedboat careened onto a shore lined with spectators during a national drag boat racing championship at Irvine Lake.

Screaming spectators scattered as they saw the boat veering toward them, witnesses said. The 1,200-horsepower racing boat was traveling about 45 m.p.h. when it ran ashore approximately a quarter of a mile beyond the finish line about 12:15 p.m., according to spectators.

"There were lawn chairs and people flying all over the place," said Richard Eppler, 23, of Whittier, a witness who was with a group of friends sitting 10 feet from the accident. "It was brutal."

The dead girl was identified as Brandy Branchflower of Burbank. One other unidentified person was treated at the scene, Robert Brown, press spokesman for Irvine Lake, said.

The hydroplane-style drag boat High Anxiety, driven by James Lange of Simi Valley, cut diagonally across the sandy beach before coming to rest. Lange was visibly shaken but otherwise unhurt. The girl was thrown about 50 feet by the impact, according to witnesses.

"I just had time to pick up my kid and run back," said Kelly Evans of Downey, who ran out of the boat's path. "I thought everyone else did the same."

Reynaldo Sanchez, a spectator from Tujunga Canyon, said the boat was 30 feet away when it passed his group and he saw it heading for the girl, who was sitting in a beach chair about 15 feet from the shore and eating chicken.

"I was seconds away from it. We were yelling, 'Get out of the way! Get out of the way!' " Sanchez said. He ran toward the girl, about 50 feet away, but the boat got there first, he said. He placed a red plaid blanket over her body until the authorities arrived.

"She was just a little girl, having a good time," he said sadly.

After a delay, the second day of racing continued at the two-day Coors' Championship Drag Boat competition, the opening races of the year.

Marine Engineer to Investigate

Race officials said they did not know the cause of the accident. A marine engineer will be retained by the National Drag Boat Assn. and is expected to examine the boat today to determine what caused the tragedy.

Asked who is liable for the crash, Peter Doyle, co-counsel for the National Drag Boat Assn., told reporters: "It's too early to determine that."

After the accident, racing officials and boaters tried to keep back the crowd, but about 200 people rushed to the scene. Evans' wife, Debbie, said she "ran over to the scene as soon as it happened. It (the boat) cut her (the girl) right in half."

About "99%" of the crowd was situated between the start and finish line, said association chief counsel Tom Indovina. That stretch was lined with a fence, but there was no fence where the boat crashed.

The crash site, about a quarter of a mile beyond the finish line, appeared to be in an authorized spectator area. Race officials said at a press conference that unauthorized areas are roped off and guarded.

After the accident, security officials closed off a stretch of lake bank about 50 feet on either side of the crash site. But spectators continued to sit nearby, next to the water's edge, with the site--marked by a red tent shielding the girl's body--in plain view.

The boat, equipped with an inboard engine and a single rear-mounted prop, is capable of speeds up to about 160 m.p.h. The front end of the boat's fiberglass hull widens into sponsons, winglike devices with sharp leading edges.

Latest Racing Accident

This was the latest in a series of injuries and deaths in boat-racing accidents in recent years at Irvine Lake, located outside the city of Orange, off Santiago Canyon Road.

Racer John May of Sylmar suffered a broken neck in October, 1982, when he lost control of his boat, traveling at 110 m.p.h., and was thrown out.

Two other drivers were injured when their boats flipped moments apart in the same heat. Wiley Miller of Fullerton suffered a broken shoulder and hip, and Perry Davis of Mesa, Ariz., had a dislocated hip.

Three spectators were injured when a high-speed boat swerved out of control during another Coors-sponsored drag race at the lake on April 9, 1983, crashing into the bank and throwing debris into a crowd of onlookers. Earlier the same day, two racing boats flipped at the finish line in separate qualifying heats of the Coors Championship of drag boat racing. The driver of one of the boats was not seriously injured, but the other, Barry Zenkova, 36, of Westminster, was killed.

On June 24, 1984, James Hobbs, 41, of San Bernardino was fatally injured when his hydroplane drag boat flipped at more than 180 m.p.h. and ejected him.

According to spectators Sunday, it was clear from the shore that the driver had trouble controlling the boat after it finished its high-speed run.

Robert Patterson of Long Beach, who said he formerly raced similar high-powered boats, said that from the shore he could see the driver struggling with the steering wheel.

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