Smith Lake 2

Rescue workers look out onto the Rock Creek area of Smith Lake on Saturday afternoon. [MICHAEL WETZEL/DECATUR DAILY]

CRANE HILL — The Alabama Marine Patrol expects to resume its search at 7 a.m. today for a missing Troy woman who fell into Smith Lake on Thursday night during a two-vessel crash involving boat operators from Decatur.

On Saturday afternoon, state and county authorities at the Rock Creek area of Smith Lake said the search for Kelsey Nicole Starling, 26, had entered the recovery mode.

The operator of a 2012 Mastercraft wakeboard boat, William Jackson Fite, 23, of Decatur, was charged early Friday with boating under the influence, a misdemeanor, and taken to the Winston County Jail. The other vessel, a 2011 Harris Flotebote pontoon boat, was operated by Jodi Wallace Suggs, 50, also of Decatur.

Starling was believed to be a passenger on the boat operated by Fite. Four people involved in the accident were sent to area hospitals for treatment.

“(Starling) remains unaccounted for,” said Winston County Emergency Management Agency Director Jimmy Madison. He said six divers Friday and Saturday have covered an area about the size of a football field searching for Starling’s body. “All nine on the capsized boat (Mastercraft) went in the water. All I could see was the bottom of it Thursday night. The search for the woman is now in recovery.”

He said about eight vessels from surrounding agencies helped in Saturday’s search. “We also had some private people helping around the perimeter,” Madison said. “We needed to keep the water smooth.”

Alabama Marine Patrol spokesman Lt. Chad Pate said a search and rescue unit of Christian Aid Ministries, based in Berlin, Ohio, came in from Tennessee with high-definition sonar to help in the search.

“They’ve been running sonar, mapping the area to see what’s on the bottom,” Pate said. “They have to see if there’s any points of interest to send divers down. The divers have looked at a few spots, but haven’t come up with anything.”

He said the lake is between 80 feet and 180 feet deep in the Rock Creek area.

“We know it was a collision and people went into the water,” he said. “We will search as long as we can at this time. It’s deep water. We’ll be back here 7 a.m. Sunday. We’ll try to wrap it up and get everybody off the water before dark.”

Authorities have set up a command post on Wren Road in Crane Hill, just southeast where the accident occurred. Pate said investigating boating accidents can be challenging, because the vessels drift after colliding.

"By the time officials arrive on the scene, the vessels could be pretty far apart,” he said.

Pate said he can’t disclose many details of the ongoing investigation. He said investigators were to meet with the father of the missing woman. "No other family members were out here today," he said Saturday afternoon.

He said he anticipates Alabama Law Enforcement Agency investigators will turn their findings over to the Winston County district attorney.

Other agencies searching for the missing boater are Cullman County EMA, Smith Lake Task Force, Winston County Sheriff’s Office, Cullman County Sheriff’s Office, and volunteer fire departments from Logan and Crane Hill.

It’s been a deadly week on area waters, authorities said.

A 39-year-old kayaker lost his life Wednesday on the Elk River and a 12-year-old girl died in a Smith Lake accident Friday.

“This has not been a typical holiday weekend,” Pate said. “I’d say it is atypical. We usually have a boating accident, but this is more than I can recall.” or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.
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