As boats and other watercraft zoom around area lakes this weekend, a Leawood widow asks revelers to choose caution over excessive partying.
That way, perhaps, others can avoid an incident like the one that killed her husband of 18 years last December.
A boat driven by a man who was allegedly drunk collided with the personal watercraft that 54-year-old Lee Hollis was riding while vacationing with his three sons in Florida near the Gulf of Mexico.
“You think that if you are in a boat and not in a car, then it is safer (to drink) and you’re less prone to have an accident,” said Gina Hollis, who didn’t see her husband’s collision because she had stayed in Kansas to prepare for Christmas. “But it doesn’t matter. If you are abusive towards alcohol or drugs, you are not being responsible.”
Authorities in Kansas and Missouri also urge those enjoying the waterways this holiday weekend to take safety precautions.
Expecting heavy boating traffic, water patrol authorities have stepped up efforts to enforce boating laws and clamped down on boaters who appear to be under the influence of alcohol.
It’s against the law in Kansas and Missouri to operate a boat with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher.
“It is very dangerous because, unlike the highway, where the lanes are marked, there are no lanes on the water and it requires maintaining a really good lookout for all the other things that are going on around you,” said Capt. Tim Hull of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
No boating fatalities occurred in Missouri during the Fourth of July weekend last year. However, troopers investigated 17 crashes that injured 11 people. They arrested 17 people for boating while intoxicated. Three people drowned.
In Kansas, officials issued 135 citations, including four for boating under the influence. They investigated three boating accidents. Two swimmers drowned in central Kansas.
Gina Hollis wishes the man accused in her husband’s death would have adhered to warnings about not operating a boat while intoxicated.
It was the Sunday before Christmas when her then 15-year-old son, Mark, broke the news in a call from Florida.
“There’s been an accident,” he told her. “Dad has been in an accident. He is missing his leg.”
“How do you know?” she asked.
“They pulled him out of the water and I saw it.”
She instructed her son to hand the phone to a police officer, who told her they were taking her husband to a hospital in Fort Myers. She flew to Florida that evening. When she arrived, doctors were treating Lee Hollis in the intensive care unit.
Early the following morning, doctors said her husband’s condition had worsened and he wasn’t going to survive.
“‘You basically have 30 minutes,’” Gina Hollis recalled them saying. “‘If you want to go see him, then you have got about 30 minutes.’”
She refused, she said.
“There is no way that was the last image I wanted to see of my husband.”
The doctors came back 15 minutes later, then 10.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “It was just like somebody telling you something but it not really hitting you.”
Authorities this week filed charges against Bruce Richard Vilardi, 43, of Port Charlotte, Fla., who was driving the boat. They accused him of causing a death while boating under the influence, vessel homicide and violation of navigation rules resulting in a boating accident.
Vilardi turned himself in to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission authorities at the Charlotte County jail on Tuesday. He was released Wednesday after posting a $226,500 bond, according to court records.
Just before the crash, Lee Hollis was riding the personal watercraft in Lemon Bay. As Vilardi’s boat was passing him, Hollis made a turn.
The collision knocked Vilardi and two women from the boat, authorities said. A 12-year-old boy, the only person left on board, slammed the boat in reverse, which caused the boat to run over Hollis, severing a leg just above the knee.
Afterward, those on the boat shouted obscenities at Lee Hollis, said his son Jeff, then 14, who along with Mark was riding another personal watercraft, Gina Hollis said.
A good Samaritan pulled Lee Hollis from the water and took him to a marina.
Vilardi had a blood alcohol content of .115, authorities say.
“There is simply no way to overstate the danger inherent in operating a watercraft while under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The serious peril to which family members, friends and other boaters are subjected is only magnified on holiday weekends when boating traffic is heaviest.
“If alcohol is legally being consumed, it should be done responsibly while an experienced ‘designated operator’ helms the vessel.”
Vilardi, a building contractor, was charged with drunken driving 10 years ago. He has eight other traffic violations dating to 2000.
Gina Hollis said her husband’s death was avoidable.
“Bruce Vilardi made a conscious decision to drink, and when you drink, you don’t have clear thought,” she said.
She described her husband as a kind, gentle and soft-spoken person who enjoyed time with his family. A personal injury attorney, he participated in Boy Scouts with his sons and served as a confirmation leader at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.
“My husband was the type of father who spent every minute he could with his sons,” Gina Hollis said.
“His death is a huge loss to me and the children. There is only one other person in the world who loves and cares for your children as you do, and that is your spouse, the father of your children.”