Ohio man charged in Hilton Head watercraft crash

astice@islandpacket.comAugust 16, 2012 

One style of personal watercraft


An Ohio man, seriously injured after his rented personal watercraft crashed into an instructor's this past July, has been found at fault for the collision in Calibogue Sound, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

An attorney for 44-year-old James Cegelski of Parma, Ohio -- who is "slowly recovering" back in his home state after being released from a local hospital -- said he plans to contest in a Beaufort County magistrate court a charge of negligently operating a water vessel.

On July 10, Cegelski was with a group of people on personal watercrafts rented from Palmetto Bay Watersports. They gathered in a semi-circle for a safety talk from a guide. Suddenly, Cegelski's watercraft accelerated and clipped the guide's craft, tossing both men into the water, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report.

Cegelski was knocked unconscious and was floating face-down in the water when the guide grabbed him and swam him to shore in Spanish Wells. Paramedics were waiting for him there, according to Sgt. Michael Paul Thomas of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Cegelski was hospitalized at Memorial University Medial Center in Savannah. His attorney, Robert Adelman of Cleveland, said Cegelski has not regained full movement and may face "long-term if not permanent paralysis."

DNR's investigation found that Cegelski was at fault based on damages to the watercrafts and witness interviews, Thomas said. Cegelski was not arrested when he was charged, and Thomas said law enforcement is willing to work with Cegelski's attorneys if they need an extension because of Cegelski's recovery.

Adelman said he plans to fight the charge in county Magistrate Court, scheduled for September.

"We don't believe he was at fault for the accident," Adelman said. "We believe the other rider involved in the collision came too close to him and was impossible to avoid."

Palmetto Bay Watersports owner Tim Trigg has stood by his guide's actions, and believes the guide's extensive safety and first-aid training may have saved Cegelski's life. An inspection of the watercraft Cegelski was riding found no malfunctions.

The charge of negligently operating a water vessel could carry fines of as much as $400, Thomas said.

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