Authorities have charged a man they say was involved in a deadly boating accident on Lake Lanier that claimed the life of at least one child. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources says 44-year-old Paul Bennett was taken into custody at the Bald Ridge Marina in Forsyth County at around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
Bennett faces charges of boating under the influence, and authorities say more charges may be forthcoming. DNR investigators say Bennett was under the influence and driving a center-console fishing boat at a high rate of speed when it slammed head-on into a pontoon boat around 10:30 p.m. The pontoon boat was carrying 13 people, and as many as five people ended up in the water after the impact. DNR authorities say witnesses, including a physician, stopped to help the boaters after Bennett left the scene of the accident.
"They were going, ‘Help, help, we need lights,'" said witness Dallas Norman.
Dallas and his wife, Amber, had just left Sunset Cove when they saw the mangled pontoon boat.
"I actually thought it was on its side when I first came up, because the way it looked," said Dallas Norman.
A 9-year-old boy was killed, and officials say his 13-year-old brother remains missing and is presumed dead. Dive teams continued to search the lake for the missing teen on Tuesday.
"It's a tragedy for this family. There's two children involved, which is horrible…and we're treating it as a crime scene," said Major Stephen Adams of the Department of Natural Resources.
Authorities say a ranger responding to the scene was leaving the Bald Ridge Marina and saw the boat that hit the pontoon boat as it was coming into the marina. After getting a good description from the victims, investigators went back to the marina, where they found the boat tied up to another vessel. Bennett was then arrested, but a woman who was riding in the boat with him at the time of the crash was not taken into custody.
Investigators say they are treating the crash as a hit and run, and they say Bennett has been cooperating with them.
Rescuers managed to bring some of the victims on the pontoon boat to shore. The 9-year-old boy was found dead at the scene.
"We removed him from the pontoon boat. So they... we believe he never got in the water. If he did, the family retrieved him before we got here," said Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell.
Authorities say the Avalon pontoon party boat was carrying people from four different families, including four adults and nine children. The boat was recovered and towed to a boat ramp.
Two children and the mother of the 9-year-old boy who died were also injured. They were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where firefighters said they were listed in stable condition.
The Normans said the people in the pontoon boat were using cell phones as lights, so they took out their spotlight to help.
"We just felt helpless. We didn't know what we could do. It's 115 feet right there," said Dallas Norman.
Bennett posted a $5,000 bond around noon on Tuesday. The Georgia DNR will decide if Bennett will face homicide by vehicle or failure to render aid charges.
Bennett's neighbors said that he loved the water and that he grew up in Charleston, S.C.
According to neighbors, he lived at a Cumming house with his wife and daughter for 10 years. They said he moved out of the house several months ago.
The 44-year-old man owns a hair salon in Johns Creek.
Employees at the salon said they had no comment.
1551 Briarcliff Rd., NE Atlanta, GA 30306
Main Number: (404) 875-5555 News Tips: (404) 898-0100