Witness recounts night of boat crash

Phil Johnson can't shake the scene he witnessed Monday night, when two boats collided in the dark waters of Lake Lanier.

"It was horrible. Just horrible. Seeing the pain those parents were going through ... I'll never forget it," said Johnson, 58, of Gainesville.

The medical device salesman was fishing in Shoal Creek near Lake Lanier Islands with his friend, David Bryant, when they heard the screams some 200 to 300 yards away.

The first person he saw, around 10:35 p.m., was Paul J. Bennett, the Cumming hair salon owner alleged to have hit the pontoon boat carrying 13 people, including nine children.

Bennett was in the water, Johnson said, but appeared OK. He told Johnson he had been involved in the crash.

"He told us we needed to go to the pontoon boat, that they needed help," Johnson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He said he could not tell whether Bennett, charged with boating under the influence roughly three hours after the collision, was intoxicated.

"He was in shock," Johnson said. "Everyone was."

Johnson and Bryant approached the pontoon boat, which had significant damage to the right frontal portion. Some of the seats had been knocked out, Johnson said.

Everyone was on the boat except 13-year-old Griffin Prince. His parents, Mark and Tara Hansen Prince, were trying to revive his 9-year-old brother, Jake, who lay unconscious. He had been retrieved from the water by the Prince's oldest son, 15-year-old Ryan.

Someone asked the fishermen if they knew CPR. Johnson volunteered, but it was too late.

"He was pretty much gone," Johnson said. He surmised that the 9-year-old who loved riding dirt biking with his two older brothers sustained the brunt of the collision.

Meanwhile, Griffin was nowhere to be found. He remained missing as of Thursday afternoon.

Bennett, back in his boat, circled nearby, Johnson said.

At one point he could hear a "low, crying moan" from Bennett, he said.

Then, silence.

"I can't describe to you how eerily quiet it was out there," Johnson said.

By roughly 11 p.m., a Georgia State Patrol helicopter hovered overheard. A few minutes later, according to Johnson, DNR rangers arrived.

At some point, Bennett left the scene, though he was there when the rangers arrived, Johnson said.

Within an hour, around 11:45 p.m., everyone was gone, Johnson recalled, save for the rangers searching desperately for the missing 13-year-old boy.

Divers searched the lake for the third consecutive day Thursday, concentrating on depths of 120 feet. Authorities focused on a half-mile wide area near the suspected site of the collision, the DNR said, but still are not exactly sure where accident occurred.

Adding to that difficulty is a forest of trees beneath the surface. It’s possible divers won’t recover Prince’s body if it has sunk there, said Capt. Mark Padgett, region supervisor for the DNR.

Padgett said authorities will determine whether to search over the weekend, when the high boating traffic could make conditions dangerous for divers already exhausted from the week-long effort.

“It’s a pretty tough chore to do what they’re doing, especially at that depth,” Padgett said.

In addition to the 10 boats that were on the water Thursday, a helicopter canvassed the lake for about three hours. DNR boats will remain on the water overnight searching with sonar equipment.

Bennett, 44, was arrested early Tuesday morning and charged with boating under the influence. Authorities have said he also could face charges of homicide and failure to render aid.

According to the Hall County District Attorney's office, Bennett is scheduled to appear in court Aug. 15. Prosecutors said they would decide if they will add any charges after DNR completes its  investigation.