Boating tragedy raises questions on alcohol in boats

July 2011 News
For more than a decade, the extended Rowley family has gathered in Central Nebraska each year for Fourth of July holidays filled with family, fireworks, boating and fun.

The cousins are more like brothers and sisters. It's not unusual for family portraits taken at the sun-splashed gatherings to feature more than 50 faces.

But the reunions at Sherman Reservoir near Loup City will never be the same after two brothers were killed this weekend in an accident involving a suspected drunken boater.

Twelve-year-old Joshua Rowley and his 19-year-old half brother Matthew McAlexander, both of Kernersville, N.C., were tubing on the reservoir Sunday night when their tube collided with a pontoon boat. Joshua died at the scene, while his brother died Tuesday at a Kearney hospital.

"They are devastated," the Rev. Mike Reiners, pastor of Grand Island's Peace Lutheran Church, said of the Rowleys. "To have this happen at their family reunion they have every year. ... it will be very hard."

The accident also has renewed questions about the change in state law that beginning this year legalized alcohol consumption at most state parks and recreation areas.

The driver of the pontoon boat, 39-year-old Brian Packer of Wood River, was arrested for suspicion of boating under the influence. A decision on formal charges is pending.

To be sure, Nebraska's previous ban on alcohol in parks didn't stop people from illegally boating drunk and claiming lives. State officials say there were six fatal boating accidents in both 2009 and 2010, a third of which were alcohol-related.

Of the two previous fatal boating accidents in Nebraska this year, one was alcohol-related. Game and Parks officials made three other arrests for drunken boating this weekend in cases that did not involve accidents.

"We've always had alcohol in our boats," said Herb Angell, boating administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "It's what people do, for some reason."

However, Diane Riibe of Project Extra Mile in Omaha said there's no doubt that increased availability of alcohol in the parks also increases the likelihood of such tragedies.

"Ban or no ban, nobody has a problem with responsible drinkers at the park," she said. "But you increase the risk of high-risk consumption when you take away that ban."

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