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Feds erred about Coast Guard texting before crash

/ Source: The Associated Press

Federal investigators were mistaken when they claimed that a Coast Guard crew member sent text messages just before his boat collided with another vessel and killed an 8-year-old boy before a holiday boat parade in San Diego Bay.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported in August that Petty Officer 3rd Class Lavelle Teague made and received a half-dozen texts only 10 to 15 minutes before the Dec. 20 crash. A revised memo issued in September says the texts were made hours earlier, attributing the error on a time zone difference in phone records.

"The error has had no impact on our investigation of the accident. We have never indicated that the use of the mobile devices contributed to the accident," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said Wednesday in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

The NTSB was confused because records from wireless provider Sprint listed cell phone calls in Pacific time but did not mark the time zone for the text messages, which were made in either Central or Eastern time, he said.

The NTSB said it correctly reported that the boat's pilot and another crew member made phone calls and sent one text minutes before the boat left the dock.

The vessel was responding to reports of a grounded vessel when it collided with a pleasure boat before a holiday boat parade. The collision killed Anthony DeWeese of Rancho Penasquitos.

The agency never said cell phone use caused the crash or a similar one the same month in Charleston, S.C., that injured six people. However, its August memo mentioned both accidents and cited concerns about possible distractions from wireless devices.

The Coast Guard issued a policy on July 16 that prohibits use of the devices by the boat operator — the person at the wheel and throttles — at all times while under way. The policy prohibits other crew members from using the devices unless expressly approved by the boat operator.

The San Diego Bay investigation is expected to be completed in the first half of next year, Knudson said.

A Coast Guard investigating officer found no legal justification for the crash after reviewing evidence from a hearing in September. Cmdr. J.R. Hamilton said in a report the Coast Guard crew should have known that piloting the 33-foot boat fast in a crowded harbor would be dangerous.

The Coast Guard has charged Teague and three other crew members with military offenses.

Petty Officers Paul A. Ramos, who was the boat's commander, Ian M. Howell and Brittany N. Rasmussen have pleaded not guilty. They blamed the crash on mechanical defects, poor training and lax leadership.

Ramos is charged with involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison if he is convicted. Howell and Rasmussen are charged with negligent homicide and could spend up to one year in prison if found guilty.

Teague, a machinery technician, was charged with dereliction of duty. His case was being handled administratively, with punishment that could include up to 30 days of correctional custody, reductions in rank, forfeitures of pay, and restriction to base.

He will plead not guilty, his attorney, Navy Lt. Ben Voce-Gardner, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, which first reported the NTSB error on Tuesday night.