Witness recounts night of deadly boating wreck as search continues for teen

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HALL COUNTY, Ga. - For the first time, a witness is giving his firsthand account of the chaos that happened during Monday night's fatal boat accident.

Divers are still searching for 13-year-old Griffin Prince's body and are planning to return to the water Friday morning as well.

Channel 2's Aaron Diamant talked to Phil Johnson who said he tried to save Griffin and his 9-year-old brother Jake the night another boat slammed into their pontoon.

"When we shut our boat down to fish, we could hear everybody yelling and we turned around and went back out there to it," Johnson said.

Johnson and his friend followed those screams through the dark where they eventually found Paul Bennett in the water first.

"Just told us he was OK and that he could get back in his boat and directed us to the pontoon boat," Johnson said.

Minutes earlier, Bennett's boat slammed nearly head-on into the Prince family's pontoon with 13 people on board, nine of them children.

Johnson immediately started looking for Griffin who was thrown off the boat in the crash.

"We couldn't locate him, so we pulled back over to the boat then to see what was going on there," Johnson said.

Amid the chaos, Johnson said someone asked if he knew CPR. That's when he jumped aboard the pummeled pontoon to help Mike Prince revive his son Jake.

"It had to be done. To try," Johnson said. But Jake's injuries were just too severe.

"Such a child. Such a beautiful child. Just a little boy. It was just incomprehensible," Johnson said.

Meantime, Johnson said Bennett, now charged with boating under the influence, didn't just split from the scene.

"It wasn't a hit-and-run, by what people may think, that he left the scene immediately. He didn't do that," Johnson said.

Johnson said Bennett bailed out sometime after rescue crews showed up.

"This is a horrible accident. I mean it's changed so many people's lives," Johnson said.

His thoughts now with the Prince family and his own.

"I have an 11-year-old at home, so it kinda touched real deep. It still stays with me," Johnson said.

Johnson said it took rescue crews between 30 and 45 minutes to get to the crash scene.

Crews facing challenges recovering Griffin

Recovery crews are facing several challenge, including extremely low visibility, as they continue the search for 13-year-old Griffin Prince's body.

Channel 2's Dave Huddleston talked with rescuers who said fatigue has started to set in them, and other dive agencies have been arriving to help. Cobb County dive teams arrived Thursday to help with the recovery effort.

Huddleston talked to a dive instructor who has specialized equipment the he said will allow divers to stay underwater for hours.

"This is a rebreather, which allows you to go deeper for longer and has no bubbles," dive instructor Randy Terrell said as he showed Huddleston the device.

Terrell said a rebreather allows a diver to stay in the water and search 5 times longer than with regular diving equipment. That would give rescuers more time to search for Griffin.

"You can stay down about 4 hours, at any depths," Terrell said.

Major Woodrow Tripp with the Hall County Sheriff's Office said the rebreathing equipment can be useful, but is not an option right now.

"You're dealing with nitrogen in the blood, so it's a very dangerous operation and you throw in the obstacles that you can't see," Tripp said.

Those obstacles include things like trees, sunken tires, boats and other debris at the bottom of the lake. Rescue crews said it's almost impossible for divers to even see at their search depth of 100 feet.

Lake Lanier is a man-made lake partially built over a city, which is why there's so much debris in the water.

With Cobb County divers on the scene, there are now six agencies involved in this search, which brings a total of about 45 to 50 people looking for the body of Griffin Prince.


Family overwhelmed with support

The family of Griffin Prince said they are overwhelmed by the support they're receiving from people all across the nation.

"The overwhelming support is incomprehensible and gracious," said Deniece Prince, Jake and Griffin Prince's grandmother. "We are blessed and thankful for the support and well-wishes and the outpouring of support of people locally and nationwide."

Nine-year old Jake died instantly when, according to investigators, the boat he was on was hit by a drunken boater. Griffin was knocked into the water. The body of Jake Prince was recovered that night.

Paul Bennett, 44, is charged with boating under the influence but will probably face other charges very soon.

The boys' father, Michael Prince Jr,. asked for privacy during this tough time but said the family plans to speak once searchers recover Griffin.

Employees at the family business, Grass Shack Boat Rentals, said phones have been ringing off the hook with calls of love, support and condolence.

"We hope someday to be able to repay everyone for their kindness," said Deneice Prince.

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Boaters call for stiffer BUI penalties

Each summer season, dozens of boaters are arrested for boating under the influence.

When Georgia lowered the legal limit for alcohol impairment while driving to .08, the limit for operating a boat remained at .10.

Some critics and even boaters told Channel 2's Tom Regan the boating laws should have changed years ago.

Many people who use the lake told Regan there needs to be tougher enforcement to improve safety. A disparity the Department of Natural Resources doesn't agree with but will continue to enforce.

"DNR doesn't take any sides on that. It would be better if it matched on the highway, but we really don't take side on that," DNR Sgt. Lee Brown said

Because there are no lanes or speed limit on the lake, it's difficult for law enforcement to find probable cause to stop a suspected boat operator driving drunk.

All the more reason, some boaters said, to lower the limit.

"If you are not able to drive correctly on the road, then obviously, you can't boat correctly at .08 so I think it should be the same. It's just as dangerous," boater Stephne Chance said.

The DNR has not released the results of breath or blood alcohol level tests given to Paul Bennett, the boat operator charged in the crash and the events leading up to the collision are still largely unknown.

"With what happened Sunday night, it was entirely preventable, because there's definitely no room for alcohol to be in the system on someone operating a boat," boater Tammy Cannon said.

With this week's tragedy, we could see another push in the state legislature to match DUI and BUI laws.

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Memorials

A memorial fund has been set up for the Prince children. If you would like to help, you can make a donation to the Jake & Griffin Prince Memorail Fund at any Wells Fargo Bank location.

A memorial Facebook page has also been set up in honor of the two boys.