BEREA — A former Lorain County couple with a tragic tie to the Lorain breakwall said the fatal Fourth of July boating accident is both a grim reminder of a similar accident they experienced 28 years ago and reason for more lighting along the structure.
Dianna Lawson, now 61, said she was in the kitchen of her Berea home when she caught a few words from the television in the other room. Her husband, David Lawson, was watching the news last week when the broadcast recounted the Lorain boating accident that killed Tim Moore, 54, and Penny Nickeson, 49.
Moore, Nickeson, and Moore’s 10-year-old grandson hit a steel breakwall in a powerboat on Lake Erie at a high rate of speed at about 10:50 p.m. July 4 after the Lorain fireworks, according to a news release from the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s Division of Watercraft.
The impact killed Moore. Nickeson died hours later at Mercy Regional Medical Center.
A V-shaped mark on the breakwall marks the point of impact.
The location was eerily close to where David Lawson said he hit back in 1990. The accident left his wife as a quadriplegic after Dianna Lawson broke her neck at the C5-C6 spinal segment.
But before Dianna Lawson started to tell the nearly three-decade-old story Friday, she wanted one thing to be clear: “This is not about me,” she said. “It’s about keeping someone else from getting hurt.”
It was just after 11 p.m. June 16, 1990, when Dianna Lawson, her husband, her brother and her niece took a boat belonging to Dianna’s brother to a Lorain harbor to dock it. The next day was Father’s Day and he wanted it to be ready for the holiday.
It was a dark, moonless night, David Lawson recalled, and there was a spontaneous idea to put the boat in the water.
The group was on the water for about 30 minutes when her brother, Fred Rowe, asked his brother-in-law to take control of the 19-foot pleasure boot so he could soothe his daughter as the then-3-year-old started crying. David was captaining the boat when it hit the breakwall — on the opposite side of where Moore and Nickeson crashed, but close enough.
“I knew I was getting close. I knew the breakwall was out there,” David Lawson said Friday. “To this day I never understood why the breakwall was not lit.”
David Lawson maintains he did not see the breakwall and was not under the influence. Court records show authorities charged him in connection with the accident and sentenced him to a short jail stint after a jury trial for misdemeanor charges.
David Lawson said the impact broke his shoulder and arm when he went through the steering wheel and wind shield. Rowe and his daughter were not seriously injured.
Dianna Lawson, meanwhile, was asleep below deck in the passenger’s cabin.
The impact broke her neck.
“My very first instinct was to get to see what happened, and I couldn’t move,” she said. “I remember my heart was beating so fast.”
The boat never took on water. The group started to back up and slowly made their way back to the nearby U.S. Coast Guard station. A medical helicopter flew Dianna Lawson to MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. She stayed in the hospital for three months.
This month’s accident brought all of that back for the couple who have remained married and now live in a home David Lawson specifically worked on to make it completely accessible to his wife. A sloped driveway and patio allow Dianna Lawson to enter and leave her home by both the front and back door without assistance. Two bedrooms were converted to one to make more room for her needs and the bathroom has a roll-in shower wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
Still, Dianna and David Lawson just wonder one thing about the recent accident: Did they see the wall?
“I’ve heard many people tell me that when they are out there, it is scary dark,” she said.
“There is no reason they can’t light it more. We have lights at train crossings in the middle of the day when you can see a train coming,” her husband added.
The incident is under investigation by the Lorain Marine Patrol pending a report by the Lorain County Coroner.
U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephanie Elfman said earlier this week that the procedure after a boating accident is for the Coast Guard to go out and inspect the lights and navigational tools in the area.
“We checked everything along that breakwall right up to the entrance buoy,” Elfman, who is based in the Coast Guard’s Buffalo sector, said. “Which was seven lights total and all of them were working when we went out there.”
Elfman noted any decisions involving adding more lights to the breakwall would supersede the sector level, where she is, and likely would go up to the district level.
Dianna Lawson said she plans to contact the Army Corp of Engineers, Coast Guard and anyone else who will listen with a plea for more lighting along the breakwall.
“Just mark the damn thing,” David Lawson said. “What happened to that couple on the Fourth has to stop. I don’t care what kind of boater you are, what kind of equipment you have … lights would give people a chance.”
“Two people lost their lives there, and I’ve been in this chair for 28 years,” Dianna Lawson added. “Enough tragedy has happened on that breakwall.”