speed boat fatal

Greg Duff competes in the Sprint Nationals Boat Races in Marine Stadium in Long Beach on Saturday, August 4, 2018. The next day, he was critically injured when another boat collided with his.

For decades, high-powered speedboats have congregated each summer for at least one weekend of racing at Long Beach's Marine Stadium.

But this year the city denied a permit to organizer Southern California Speedboat Club (SCSC), citing a lack of response to additional safety requirements. Ross Wallach, club commodore and longtime organizer of the Long Beach Sprint Nationals, disputed that and charged city officials with lying and lack of response.

"We're working with legal counsel now to figure out what our next move is," Wallach said Friday in an interview. "…There's been a financial impact, and not just to us. We have an exemplary track record. And we've responded to the three items listed on the denial."

Wallach said there has never been a spectator injury at Marine Stadium in the decades of racing there. However, speedboat driver Gregory Paul Duff died last year, two weeks after his boat was hit by another boat that had gone airborne in a turn.

On Wednesday, June 5, City Manager Pat West's office issued a statement addressing the permit denial.

"While the SCSC has hosted the Sprint Nationals in Long Beach for many years, it was evident that additional safety measures are required to keep up with the technological advances of speedboats combined with the design of the event’s venue," the statement says. "For special events, the city’s number one priority is safety."

The city listed three additional requirements after SCSC filed a permit application last August. They were to increase fire department staffing to have three rescue boats on hand, add perimeter safety barriers to include debris or fence netting to prevent boats or debris from colliding with public or property, and increase security so people don't watch the races from non-designated viewing areas.

The city statement says there was "minimal response" from Wallach after November 2018, a committee of city officials reviewed the permit application, and in February informed Wallach of the additional conditions.

"From February to May 2019, the City communicated with the promoter in an attempt to receive adequate documentation regarding safety requirements for the event." the statement says. "Ultimately, the promoter was unable to properly ensure all safety requirements would be met, and therefore the permit application was denied."

Wallach said he tried multiple times from February on to talk with Deputy Fire Chief Matt Gruneisen, who is the department's Fire Marshal, and with Special Events Director Tasha Day, but neither would return calls. He said he added the additional safety requirements with one exception — a net or fence across the open end of Marine Stadium. He offered a "boat barricade" there instead because a 300-foot-long catch fence across open water was not feasible.

"There are a lot of moving parts in an event like this," Wallach said. "We've tried to take a proactive approach; I offered to put water-filled K-rail barriers along the low tide line on the beach side, with a fence at the high tide line, for example… I agreed with their conditions and resubmitted, but they never called back. All I wanted to do was to talk to them. But there was not one call or letter."

Gruneisen said Saturday that communications go through the Special Events office, and he did not receive any direct communications from Wallach. He also said there was no documentation of the safety plans Wallach mentions.

"After every event, the Fire Department has an internal review to see how we can make it better," Gruneisen said. "We are very aware of the financial impact on the promoter, as well. But we found last year that we were understaffed… I was born and raised in Long Beach, and am well aware of the history of Marine Stadium and speedboat races there. Our venue is different than any of the other venues they go to."

On May 16, Wallach received a second permit denial letter, this time by certified mail. Wallach said there wasn't documentation with reasons for the denial in either letter, and his attempts to get an explanation were ignored.

"It was obvious that somebody had made a decision to kill the event," Wallach said. "That happened a long time ago. They've just been stringing us along. I've been willing to do whatever it took to keep it (the races) going. But they wouldn't listen."

The Sprint Nationals had been scheduled for Aug. 3 and 4 this summer. Wallach said he's still open to putting the event on, but didn't think the city officials would allow that to happen.

"A lot of people are upset over this," Wallach said. "A lot of businesses depend on this. Watch, there are going to be quite a few people there Tuesday (at the City Council meeting)."

Information about the Southern California Speedboat Club is available at www.scscracing.com.

Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at hsalt@gazettes.com.

NOTE: This story has been updated to include comment from Deputy Fire Chief Matt Gruneisen.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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