Police drivers search for evidence in fatal boat wreck

Prince William police divers spent most of Wednesday underwater at Leesylvania State Park, searching near an off-shore marker that was involved in a July 4 accident that claimed the life of a 20-year-old Woodbridge woman.

Elisa Escalante, 20, of Florida Avenue in Woodbridge, died after she was thrown from the Occoquan-Woodbridge-Lorton Volunteer Fire Department’s 22-foot Boston Whaler at 11:40 p.m. July 4. Escalante was riding along as a non-member with firefighter Stuart Young, 24, and Roger Donais, 35. Young, who was also ejected, broke his wrist; Donais, piloting the craft, broke his pelvis and suffered head injuries.

It was unclear Thursday what authorities were looking for in the dive. Prince William police are investigating the accident, along with Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The boundary marker — a steel post filled with sand — tore a 12-foot long hole through the boat’s fiberglass body, splitting it from its bow to its center. The vessel came to rest, impaled on the piling with the marker breaching a little over halfway through the 22-foot hull, according to a Game and Inland Fisheries spokeswoman.

An off-duty Fairfax County police officer spotted the marker soon after the accident under an almost moonless, yet clear, sky and noticed that it didn’t look normal, according to Julia Dixon-Smith, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries spokeswoman.

Donais called 911 on his cell phone, police said. The off-duty police officer, who has not been named, also called 911 after hearing a whistle being blown, Dixon-Smith said. The boat was returning from a patrol shift on the Potomac River when it hit the marker, which separates Virginia and Charles County, Md. Maryland owns most of the Potomac, OWL spokesman Rick DuFlocq said.

Investigators have not determined how fast the boat was moving when it crashed.

Escalante was on the boat as a ride-along. She was training to become a firefighter, and was planning to apply for OWL membership. No ride-along form was on file, stating that she had been approved to ride with the company, DuFlocq said.

Following the accident, DuFlocq said ride-alongs are required to fill out a form before going on-duty with a crew, but recently discovered there is no standard operating procedure for non-members to go on calls. The rule to require forms existed at some point in the past, but was abandoned over time, DuFlocq said.

“While we do have the form, it is in essence not a prerequisite to ride-along,” DuFlocq said. “Nor does it absolve us of responsibility should we be found negligent in a case like this.”

The patrol did not include any specified time or area — the farthest north it traveled that night was the Ft. Belvoir area near Fairfax County, OWL officials contend. Escalante called her father at 11 p.m., and told him she and the crew had responded to a call for a fire on a boat. He believes she may have told him that call was at the fireworks display in Washington, D.C. Coast Guard officials and DuFlocq said there were no boat fires that evening. The OWL crew did not respond to any emergencies that night.

Staff writer Daniel Drew can be reached at (703) 878-8065.