2 Central MO powerboat racers honored after Key West crash

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Offshore powerboat racers Thursday honored two Missouri comrades who lost their lives during the first of three race days at the Key West World Championship.

About 200 racers, officials and supporters gathered in the dry pits to remember 74-year-old Robert M. Morgan of Sunrise Beach and 47-year-old Jeffrey Tillman of Kaiser.

They died Wednesday when their 46-foot catamaran Big Thunder Marine went airborne and violently crashed during a race inside Key West Harbor.

Team members wearing Big Thunder shirts sat near Morgan’s widow, Sue. She clutched a large bouquet of flowers during the memorial and spoke briefly at the conclusion of the service, thanking those who came to honor her husband and Tillman.

The memorial was officiated by the Rev. Jim Black of Racing Performance Ministries under a large tent normally used for race-day drivers’ meetings. It was the same venue where Morgan and Tillman had sat Wednesday morning listening to officials discuss the race course and conditions.

“To all of you involved in this sport, this is one of the times that we’re stunned,” said Black, who spoke about the fragility of life and the risks that powerboat racers face and accept. “Will we race again? Of course — we’re racers. It’s what we do.”

Racing is to continue Friday with the finals set for Sunday.

Funeral arrangements for both men have not yet been finalized, according to John Carbonell, president of Super Boat International, the event’s sanctioning body.

Racers and fans were shocked by the two men’s deaths, which marred the beginning of the championship series. The event had attracted 61 boats, with teams from the U.S., Australia, Italy, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom and Ukraine.

“It’s a weird thing,” said throttleman Johnny Tomlinson of Miami, holder of 40 world and American titles since he began racing in 1986. “Every racer thinks it’s not going to happen to them.

“It (the accident) does a lot to humble you,” said Tomlinson, who is throttling Team Gasse, a Norwegian Superboat Unlimited class entry. “It brings everyone back to reality and lets you know that you’re not indestructible.

Five racers died in Key West world championship events during the 1980s and 1990s, but there had been no deaths since 1995, Carbonell said.

“We studied those accidents that happened in the past and came up with solutions,” Carbonell said. “Now we have boats with fighter jet canopies, special contoured seats that absorb impacts and onboard oxygen.”

Carbonell said Morgan and Tillman had successfully completed dunker tests on Monday. The tests check the ability of racers to self-egress from a simulated raceboat cockpit that is turned over in a swimming pool. The team also had other safety equipment including fulltime onboard oxygen.

“I’ve seen accidents, but I’ve never seen one of these big boats blow over like that,” said Tomlinson, who was behind Big Thunder, running about 150 mph, when the accident happened. “With all that force and impact, they did not have a chance.”

But Tomlinson said he is confident Morgan, who he knew for 20 years, would want the world championship to continue.

“It’s a tragedy, but at the same time I know Bob would want this to go on,” he said. “And that’s what we’ll do . and just keep Bob in our memory.”

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Online: Key West World Championship, http://www.superboat.com

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