Propeller strikes maim or kill Arizona boaters every year

Arizona is one of four states with no boat safety education requirements
In Arizona, two people died from prop strikes, and 60 people suffered boating injuries.
Updated: Nov. 15, 2023 at 6:00 AM MST
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PEORIA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) — Dozens of people each year die from danger on lakes that sits beneath the water’s surface. It is from the boat’s propeller, and it is creating a dangerous suction that brings people closer to the swirling blades. In Arizona, two people died from prop strikes, and 60 people suffered boating injuries.

Alyssa Padilla thought she was in for a fun day on the lake in July of 2022. She had no second thoughts when she jumped into Lake Pleasant’s cool water to escape the summer heat. But moments later, the propeller on the rented speedboat sliced through her legs, hand, and butt with enough force to shatter bone. “I just kept thinking, ‘I’m going to die here. I’m going to leave my kids without a mother in this world,’” said Padilla during an interview with Arizona’s Family Investigates.

Video from body cameras worn by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies captured the tense effort to save Padilla’s life as she lay on the dock with gauze stuffed into the gaping wound on one leg and a tourniquet strapped to the other leg. “This is going to hurt like hell, everything we’re doing. But it’s going to be alright, alright. OK?” says one deputy.

Video shows the deputies and Peoria Fire-Medical Department paramedics transporting Padilla with a golf cart across the docks to a waiting ambulance and finally to a medivac helicopter. Padilla suffered a shattered leg, which required hundreds of staples and stitches, and nerve damage, which caused her to walk with a severe limp. “I can’t work. Sometimes, it’s difficult just to get up in the morning. It’s life-changing. I’ll never be able to walk the same,” she said.

What Padilla did not know at that time was that this type of injury happens nearly every other day in waterways across the country. According to statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard, there were 173 reported boat accidents across the country in 2022, resulting in 182 injuries and 41 deaths.

In Arizona, two people died from prop strikes, and 60 people suffered boating injuries in 2022. “The first thing you hear is that it happened so fast,” said Detective Rob Marske from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Marske is a boat incident investigator.

He says boat propellers act like underwater blenders. “Even at idle speed, a propeller can spin 40 times per second. It’s a catastrophic event that happens so quick and our victims can bleed out very, very quickly,” said Marske.

He says most prop strikes occur because of boat operators’ inattention. Often, a swimmer is in the water behind the boat, and the boat operator turns on the motor. That appears to be the situation when Padilla was struck. “It created a suction of water into the propeller, which was taking me. I tried to swim out of it. My leg and bone and everything was open and shattered, and I was in extreme pain and bleeding everywhere,” said Padilla.

“Propeller strikes happen on a really disturbingly regular basis. And they tend to happen to people renting boats or were guests on boats unfamiliar with the boating process,” said Joe Watkins. He is an attorney who is representing Padilla in a lawsuit against the company that rented the boat to Padilla’s group, Scorpion Bay Marina.

Watkins alleges nobody from the marina gave anyone on the boat a safety briefing. The sheriff’s deputies on-scene at the time of Padilla’s injury could be heard on the body-cam video complaining that the rental company did not have a record of who rented the boat.

A spokesperson for Scorpion Bay declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation. “It’s about common sense. A simple safety lecture with everyone who’s going out would keep this from happening,” said Watkins.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard 2022 recreational boating statistics, 74% of deaths occurred in boating accidents where the boating operator did not receive boating safety instructions.

But Arizona is one of four states without requiring boat operators to get safety training. “The driver of the boat was handed the keys and shown, you know, how to start the boat, and this is how you go forward and backwards, and that was about it,” said Padilla.

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