The six friends were just a quarter of a mile from wrapping up a day of watersports and fireworks when their powerboat struck a fishing trap, forever changing their lives.
Jesse T. Johnson, who would dive into the water to save two friends, says he remembers the moments before the crash too clearly. It was the Fourth of July. When he closes his eyes, he sees his friend Gregory A. Bucklew smiling while at the wheel of the 20-foot Stingray just before it crashed on the Patuxent River.
"I looked up and saw the bridge and said, 'We're almost there.' . . . A couple minutes later [Greg] said, 'Get down!' We hit like a brick wall. He didn't even have time to get the sentence out," Johnson said. "It was so quick he didn't even get down."
Bucklew was killed. He suffered head and neck injuries when he was struck by the ropes and lines of the pound net, which stuck out about five feet above the water, said Cpl. Jennifer Lynch, the Natural Resources Police investigator on the case.
Passengers Jessica F. Davis and Sheri A. Burns were thrown into the water, Lynch said, and Burns's brother, Robert "D.J." Burns, was knocked to the deck of the boat, leaving him unconscious and bleeding from his head.
On Monday, four weeks after the accident, police released a toxicology report showing that Bucklew, 31, had a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, which is above the legal limit for operating a boat.
Johnson, a soft-spoken 26-year-old with a peach-fuzz scalp and a delicate, almost penciled beard, said he is not a hero; he just reacted.
"I looked up," he recalled in the days after the crash. "My girlfriend [Jessica] was gone. Sheri was gone. D.J. was on the ground; I thought he was dead."
Johnson had been struck in the back of the head by a piece of wood that splintered off a pole.
He said he jumped onto the seat of the boat but couldn't see anyone. The crash had killed the running lights, and Johnson felt smothered by the darkness of night on the water.
Then he heard Sheri Burns far off to his right.
"I figured I could save someone, so I dove in," he said. "Once I got into the water at eye level, I could see them. . . . [Jessica and Sheri] were like 50 or 60 feet away. I swam out there and grabbed them both and tried to calm them down. 'Everything is going to be all right,' I told them, 'we got to make it back to the boat.' "
Johnson's girlfriend had been badly slashed across her stomach and arms -- like in a motorcycle accident, Johnson said. He said her shoulder felt dislocated, and she couldn't swim.
"Just kick," he told her. The two women threatened to become too heavy for Johnson.
"At one point on the water, [Jessica] said to leave her there because she couldn't go on." That's when Johnson spoke of their 10-month-old son, whose name is tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. "I said, 'Do it for Jayden.' I kept lying to her, telling her that the boat was close."
Johnson said Sheri Burns seemed to calm down and maneuvered her way back to the boat, where she got a life preserver for Davis.
After 15 or 20 minutes of swimming, Johnson helped his girlfriend of eight years into the boat, but he thought she was going to die because of her profuse bleeding and state of shock.
"I kept asking the 911 people to get a boat out," Johnson said. They're like, 'We already got a boat out.' " He said he told them, "It's been a long time."
When he spotted a helicopter, it was in the wrong place, too close to the bridge. Frustrated, he could see the ambulances lined up on the shore, but the rescue personnel couldn't see him. So Johnson said he told the 911 operator how to direct the helicopter toward his boat. With the helicopter's spotlight on the crash scene, the rescue boats were able to converge.
Davis and D.J. Burns were taken to Baltimore. Johnson, Sheri Burns and Ashley C. Thorne -- Bucklew's girlfriend -- were towed to a dock, and Thorne was taken to Calvert Memorial Hospital, Johnson said.
Still no one had seen Bucklew.
"I was praying that he was alive and floating somewhere," Johnson said. "But in the back of my mind I knew it was a long time."
Divers recovered Bucklew's body at 1:20 a.m., almost three hours after the accident.
At Home on the River
The accident occurred on a river that Johnson and Bucklew navigated as often as two or three times a week, said Johnson, a construction worker and personal trainer.
Johnson, Bucklew, their girlfriends and Sheri Burns left Hallowing Point, midway down the Calvert peninsula on the Patuxent, about noon to meander downstream toward Solomons Island. They knee- and wake-boarded from the back of the boat for much of the day, donning life jackets for the high-speed watersports. Johnson said they did not think adults needed to wear the orange jackets inside the boat while cruising around.
An hour or two into their excursion, the five were joined by six members of the Burns family on a second vessel. The two boats tied together for lunch, and D.J. Burns joined his sister on the ill-fated craft. After taking in the fireworks at Solomons, the boats headed toward home, traveling separately.
Because Johnson had driven all day, he accepted Bucklew's offer to steer midway through the return trip. That left Bucklew behind the wheel about 10:15 p.m. -- cruising at between 25 and 30 mph, according to Johnson and Lynch -- when the craft struck the trap about a mile south of the Route 231 bridge.
These traps, called pound nets, consist of wooden poles connected by meshing and wire.
Howard King, director of the Maryland Fisheries Service, said the nets are inspected once, when they are put in, and after that it is up to the Natural Resources Police to notice any traps that are out of compliance.
This was the first time in his 35 years of working on the waterways that he had heard of a fatal fishing gear accident.
"These types of incidents are really very infrequent," King said. "But that doesn't diminish the tragedy of it."
The nets funnel fish deeper and deeper into the part of the trap known as the pound, where they are corralled. That's where the boat hit, Lynch said.
She said pound nets are required to have either a light or reflective tape. This one had both, she said, so even if the light were not functioning, it would have been up to code.
Often Difficult to See
The regulations posted on the Department of Natural Resources' Web site say the light must be "placed on the stake at least 6 feet above normal high water" and be "visible in all directions for at least 1 mile on a clear night." Lynch said that she has trouble seeing the lights on the river and that the boat's passengers said they had difficulty seeing them, too.
"With the house lights on shore, with fireworks on shore, with other boat lights out there, it can be difficult to distinguish [the trap lights]. They're not like the red and green lights that buoys have. It's difficult to see them -- that's definite," she said. "I have a hard time on the water myself to see them."
She said the lights sometimes go out because they're often battery-powered.
Johnson said no one on the boat saw the trap or any warning light. If there were a light, he said, Bucklew would have steered around it. Not until they were on top of the net did they realize it was there.
"If that's legal and it's that dangerous, they need to change the law," he said. He hopes the accident will bring attention to the hazard posed by such nets.
"Right now, I don't even want to see the boat. I don't think I'll go out on the boat at night knowing that there's stuff out there like that."
Lynch said the crash illustrated a hazard of being on the water in the dark. "It's something that's definitely a big possibility if you ride at nighttime," she said.