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Windermere Observer Thursday, Jul. 11, 2019 2 months ago

Windermere leaders encourage boating safety after Lake Butler tragedy

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Nickaloy Dunstan Thomas, 25, was struck and killed by a boat on Lake Butler earlier this month
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

A man was struck and killed by a boat Thursday, July 4, on Lake Butler in the Windermere area, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Office — raising concerns about safety on a lake that’s frequented by many boaters.

Deputies responded to Lake Butler at around 5 p.m. after the accident, which occurred off the shore of Bird Island. The victim— who was pronounced dead at the scene — has been identified as Nickaloy Dunstan Thomas, 25.

It’s a tragic turn of events, Windermere Police Chief David Ogden said, adding the lake is frequently filled with dozens of families and would-be party-goers.

“On any given weekend or on holiday weekends, there’s upward of 50 to 100-plus boats there,” Ogden said. “Whenever you have that many boats in one given area, everybody needs to be cautious and on their utmost behavior in that area. There’s kids, there’s family members, there’s people swimming, there’s boaters around, and it always can create a dangerous environment.”

Despite the lake and its surrounding waterways being within unincorporated Orange County, the town of Windermere has worked closely with the county and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to make the area as safe as possible.

Alcohol restrictions on the boat ramps in Windermere are put in place to keep boaters responsible, Ogden said.

“No alcohol is allowed in the parks in the town of Windermere, so our officers are there,” Ogden said. “All our boat ramps are parks within the town. … It’s one of those things to help curb some of the problems that people have had out in the past. We’ve seen people walk out to the docks with two cases of beer in their hand, and our officers ask what they’re doing. … We make them go back or leave the park.”

Orange County has an off-duty officer, as well, to help work the area, Ogden said. The Windermere Police Department has asked to participate in that off-duty role, but that request was denied, Ogden said.

“We’re hoping that is re-evaluated, because one of the things that we can do is we do have a boat,” he said. “What we’re looking at is trying to control our docks and our thoroughfares such as the boat ramps. It’s not that we don’t want people to have a good time, but you don’t need a whole case of beer to have a good time either.”

Windermere Mayor Jim O’Brien said the town’s options are limited as far as enforcement but added Orange County has increased law-enforcement coverage in the area.

“It’s a finite amount of resources and a lot of (resident) boats,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to continue to work with the county to keep it safe for everybody, but also there’s personal responsibility in terms of self-policing and making sure that boat owners are being safe, careful, following the rules and being respectful to law enforcement. … I think that’s where the big change has to happen.”

Technically, residents are not supposed to be on Bird Island itself, O’Brien said, because it’s essentially a cluster of mangrove trees that serves as a nature and bird sanctuary. The island is still frequently visited and littered with beer cans and other trash.

The Bird Island/Lake Butler area has seen its share of incidents, but nothing like what happened on July 4, O’Brien said.

“It was a very unfortunate accident,” O’Brien said. “We feel really terrible about the young man. It’s a symptom of a lot of people and a lot of boats in a very confined location. It’s just a tremendous tragedy. Our heart goes out to the family.”

Ogden said he hopes people will be more cautious following Thomas’ death.

“It’s something everybody needs to pay attention to,” Ogden said. “Unfortunately, we had a horrible tragedy there. It can serve to remind everybody as a time to take caution. Boating requires us all to be safe.

“These lakes are great,” he said. “They’re fun. They’re a great time to spend on the weekends. Heck, I actually go out sometimes on a weekend, but boating safety is all of our responsibilities.”

Tim Freed is the Managing Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. He previously spent six years covering the Winter Park/Maitland area and is a graduate of the University of Central Florida....

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