CRANE HILL — Smith Lake’s deep water and the remains of trees on the bottom have complicated efforts to find a missing Troy woman.
Kelsey Nicole Starling, 26, disappeared in the Rock Creek area of Smith Lake after a boating accident July 4. About 20 agencies have participated in the search for her that continued this week.
“The combination of the lake’s depth and debris on the bottom have made the search efforts challenging,” said Andre Weaver, program director of Christian Aid Ministries.
Weaver’s organization is volunteer with 10 teams nationwide. On Tuesday, Christian Aid Ministries brought in a towable sophisticated sonar-equipped vehicle from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, to enhance search efforts.
On July 6, the ministry's search and rescue team worked with a smaller remotely operated vehicle, similar to an underwater drone. Since then, the Daphne Search and Rescue unit has brought another sonar device to help in the search.
“(The towable device) has more clarity and is a bigger, better unit that can search a wide area at one time,” Weaver said. The search area has expanded to larger than a football field, he added.
“We have to keep our equipment about 15 feet above the tree lines down there,” Weaver said. “There’s not a lot of oxygen. That’s why the trees didn’t rot and come up to the surface (when the lake was created). There’s a lot of debris on the bottom. … When we see something interesting, we have to decide is that a stump? A rock? We study the images and bring in our ROV to do spot searches with a camera and sonar.”
Starling was a passenger on a 2012 Mastercraft boat operated by Decatur native William Jackson Fite, 23. The accident occurred about 10 p.m. July 4, authorities said.
Fite was charged with boating under the influence, a misdemeanor, in the early morning hours of July 5. He was released about 4 p.m. that day from the Winston County Jail on a $2,000 bail. Court records list Fite as having an Atlanta address.
The Mastercraft boat was involved in a collision with a pontoon boat operated by Jodi Wallace Suggs, 50, of Decatur, authorities have said.
Alabama Marine Patrol Sgt. Chad Pate said there’s no timetable on ending the recovery efforts.
“We’re taking it a day at a time,” he said Tuesday. “We’re seeing what each day brings. There’s not a set time frame when we would end the search. We’ve got several agencies out here every day actively searching for (Starling).” He said most searches recover a body within seven days.
The 21,200-acre Smith Lake was formed from 1957 to 1961 when U.S. Geological Survey gave the Alabama Power Co. the authority to build Lewis Smith Dam on the Sipsey fork of the Black Warrior River. According to the USGS, Smith Lake, named for Lewis Martin Smith, president of Alabama Power from 1952 to 1957, has a maximum depth of 264 feet, the deepest in Alabama.
When the dam was built, water flooded the area to form the lake, and many of the trees were not cleared beforehand.
Pate and Weaver believe some trees on the lake bottom are 60 to 70 feet tall.
“We keep praying we’ll find her,” Weaver said. “We’re going to try everything we can. Our crews take vacation time from their jobs to volunteer on searches. We’ve got highly trained members. We do it for the Lord. We really do care, and we want the families to know God cares about them.”
Pate said search units from Cullman, Winston, Walker, Colbert and Franklin counties as well as Alexander City also have participated in the search.
Pate said the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency investigation is ongoing, and evidence will be turned over to the Winston County District Attorney’s Office when concluded.
“The case will be reviewed to see if anything criminal will be added,” he said.
Pate reminded all boaters to wear secure-fitting life jackets when out on the water.
“And if there’s going to be drinking, just like driving a vehicle, have a designated driver,” he added.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Marine Patrol Division said a dozen boating accidents resulted in six deaths statewide during the July 4 holiday weekend.