DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. (AP) — Search teams recovered the bodies of two boaters missing since a disastrous sailboat race Thursday as an investigation began into circumstances surrounding the competition, including whether it should have been canceled because of the threat of bad weather.
The discovery of the bodies of Adam Clark, 17, of Mobile and Robert Thomas, 50, of Pickens, Mississippi, left one person still unaccounted for and five confirmed dead since a powerful squall disrupted the Dauphin Island Regatta on Saturday.
Around 100 boats carrying about 470 people were on Mobile Bay for the race when the squall occurred even though forecasters had issued alerts about the possibility of severe weather along the coast.
Coast Guard Capt. Duke Walker said the probe could include a review of whether the race should have been canceled.
“That’s for the investigation team to consider perhaps,” said Walker, commander of the agency’s Mobile sector. The Coast Guard suspended its search for missing boaters Thursday night and said the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency will now lead the recovery effort. Officials said the Coast Guard has spent more than 180 hours searching more than 9,527 miles of water and 164 miles of shoreline.
Leaders at the Fairhope Yacht Club, which organized the race this year, did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the investigation.
The probe, which Walker said could take as long as six months, began as crews scaled back the hunt for survivors. Searchers have covered 9,500 square miles of water and combed 164 miles of shoreline looking for survivors, he said.
The Coast Guard, using a state law enforcement website, posted an online questionnaire for the hundreds of people who participated in the race. It included a question about whether they heard alerts concerning deteriorating weather conditions before the storm occurred.
“The Coast Guard and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency are conducting a joint investigation into the circumstances surrounding the events in Mobile Bay on Saturday during the Dauphin Island Regatta,” the notice read.
The survey was voluntary, but officials said they needed responses to help determine what happened. Other questions included whether boaters saw anyone go overboard or aided with any rescues.
Sailors said in interviews that while they expected rain, a storm with near hurricane-force winds struck instead. While the race began late because of miscommunication and a false start, many boats already had finished the competition and were returning to port when the storm arrived.
The timeline of weather alerts could play a role in the investigation.
Weather Service meteorologist John Purdy previously said a storm moved quickly eastward through Louisiana and Mississippi, prompting a severe thunderstorm watch at 1:36 p.m. Saturday and a warning less than an hour later.
The National Weather Service then issued a special marine warning around 3 p.m. for boaters on several waterways including Mobile Bay, warning of a line of thunderstorms producing gusty winds, high waves, dangerous lightning and heavy rains.
The notice urged boaters to “seek safe harbor immediately,” but many boats were still on the water when a squall arrived about an hour later with winds in excess of 70 mph.
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