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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 27, 2003

Accounts differ on death of boy, 3, in whale-watch boat

By Curtis Lum and Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writers

The young son of a Navy submariner was the victim of Thursday's tragic encounter with a pod of whales off Diamond Head, officials said yesterday as conflicting accounts surfaced on whether the whale-watching boat hit a whale.

A passenger on the American Dream, John Skeens of Indiana, took this photo on Christmas Day of a whale along the port side of the whale-watching boat off Diamond Head.

Photo courtesy of John Skeens

Ryker Hamilton, a 3-year-old from Norfolk, Va., died after he hit his head during a whale-watching trip on the American Dream, a 108-foot boat that had motored from Kewalo Basin to waters off Diamond Head. The boy was knocked unconscious in the 10:15 a.m. incident and had to be airlifted to shore.

The Honolulu medical examiner's office planned to do an autopsy yesterday but the exact cause of death was not available.

Navy officials at Pearl Harbor confirmed that Ryker's father is assigned to the attack submarine USS Boise out of Norfolk. The child's family was in Honolulu visiting grandparents. Military officials are helping the family deal with the tragedy.

The Coast Guard continued to investigate the accident yesterday, and preliminary results show no apparent wrongdoing. There were about 50 passengers aboard.

The boat operator said it may be impossible to know exactly what a humpback whale did to trigger the fatal fall Christmas morning.

P. Michael Watson, president of Dream Cruises Hawai'i, which owns the boat, said its captain does not think the whale and the boat collided.

But a passenger, John Skeens of Indiana, told The Advertiser that the accident occurred when the American Dream collided with a whale. Skeens, who said he and his oldest son were standing next to Ryker and his father, said the vessel headed directly for the whale, which he said was about 300 yards away.

"We're doing a pretty good clip and I turned to my son and I said, 'We're going to hit that whale' because we weren't slowing down. Twenty seconds before impact I turned to him and said, 'We are going to hit this damn thing,'" Skeens said. "We hit the whale, and I mean we hit the whale hard."

He said the impact flipped the whale, forcing its tail into the air next to the boat. He said many people lost their balance.

Skeens said Ryker's father was holding the boy and pointing him toward the whales. At impact, Skeens said, the father moved back and then forward and that was when the 3-year-old's head struck a rail.

Both father and son fell backward, Skeens said, but the man never let go of the boy. Skeens said the father, on his back and injured himself, handed his unconscious son to Skeens.

Coast Guard officials could not be reached last night to confirm Skeens' account.

Watson questioned the validity of Skeens' version of the accident and said no other passenger reported the boat striking the whale at full speed. Watson also said Skeens' version to The Advertiser differed from the report he made to Dream Cruises soon after the incident.

Watson said when the boat's captain realized some whales were in his path, he put the engines in reverse to slow and stop the vessel.

"The whale may have swung its tail and slapped our boat, or may have bumped up against the boat, or we may have bumped up against it," Watson said last night. "But nobody has reported a collision with the whale or the boat going full-speed at the whales or anything of that nature."

He said the American Dream is made of aluminum and that a collision as violent as the one described by Skeens would have caused major damage to the hull. Watson said the only damage was to the boat's engines, which overheated as the boat rushed back to shore.

Watson added that the Coast Guard would not have held a press conference yesterday and characterized the incident as an "act of God" if there was any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the Dream Cruises crew.

"There were some people on board the boat that thought that we made contact with the whale," Watson said. "There were some people on the boat that said the whale made contact with us. There's some people who thought that the whale hit passengers on the boat, and there's some people on the boat who thought there wasn't any contact between the whale and us.

"Whatever that contact was and whoever initiated it, it wasn't contact which threw people about and it certainly wasn't contact caused by our captain driving at full-speed at the whales to hit the whales."

Skeens said he stands by his story. "They never slowed down and I'd swear on a stack of Bibles," Skeens said. "I told the Coast Guard my story, exactly what I told you."

Skeens said he was on the cruise with his wife, Dawn, and their three children.

Earlier yesterday, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Todd Offutt said a preliminary investigation, including results of drug testing of the captain and crew required after serious incidents, will be completed in four or five days. The complete investigation could take months.

"There was an account that a whale tail was seen, and that is possible, but there is no reason to indicate that is what struck the child," Offutt said. "That is what the investigation is telling us right now.

"The first action that took place they would possibly say is a surfacing pod of whales. Some people would chalk that up to an act of God."

Watson said the boat's captain, Monroe Wightman, said whales were about half a boat length in front the American Dream when they were first spotted. Wightman immediately put all three of the boat's engines in reverse in order to stop it, Watson said.

Watson doubts they were that close and said passengers probably heard a rumbling beneath the vessel as its propellers shifted direction in the abrupt maneuver.

"The captain believes he stopped and did not hit the whale although he had reports from others that he may have in fact touched it," Watson said. "But it may have been the whale's tail touching the boat."

The surfacing whale startled passengers and caused the boy and his father to fall backwards, Watson said. The boy hit his head on a rail or another part of the boat.

Accounts differ on whether the boy was standing near the rail or in his father's arms. The boy was treated by a nurse who was also a passenger on the cruise.

A Coast Guard helicopter on a training exercise pulled the boy from the boat at about 10:30 a.m. The boy died later at The Queen's Medical Center.

The American Dream was out of service yesterday for repairs. Wightman was at the helm of a boat chartered for whale-watching yesterday.

Watson said he was stunned by the accident.

"It is just an incredible tragedy," he said. "I am at a loss as to what we can do to mitigate their sorrow."

Advertiser staff writer James Gonser contributed to this report. Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8025. Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.