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High water in Ellicott Creek may have contributed to fatal boating accident in Tonawanda

A bag of Ruffles potato chips, a bottle of blue Gatorade and a rainbow of floral bouquets mark the site along Ellicott Creek in the Town of Tonawanda where Avery L. Gardner lost her life during a freak motorboating accident early Thursday.

As friends and family of the 16-year-old prepare to remember her life from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Ross Funeral Home Gaul Chapel in Lockport, police continue to investigate whether alcohol and speed were factors in the death of the Lockport teen.

Motorboats are not common on Ellicott Creek, said a member of the U.S. Coast Guard and a merchant with 18 years of experience paddling on the creek.

At the time of the accident, Avery was on a Sunbird Stinger – a small recreational motorboat – with her boyfriend and a man reported to be a family friend of the boyfriend.

Police have not released the names of the other two occupants in the boat.

When investigators tried to question one of the two occupants on the boat, that person ran into traffic, according to Town of Tonawanda police reports.

Witnesses said the boat was traveling west in the creek after getting gas when Avery stood up in the moving boat and rammed her head against the bottom of a foot bridge near Thistle Avenue.

She was taken to Erie County Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

Power boats are not a common sight on the waterway that originates in the southwest corner of Genesee County just northeast of Darien Lake State Park in the Town of Darien.

In fact, even the U.S. Coast Guard is limited in where it can operate its small motorcraft on the creek, which has water depths that can range from a few inches to 20 feet.

“We can only go a half-mile on Ellicott Creek because we’re constrained by our height,” said Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Robert Vercellone of the U.S. Coast Guard. “If the water is high, the motorboat can only go so far.” Tonawanda police are expected to address whether the creek’s high water level played a role in the accident.

There are no posted speed limits on the creek, though one merchant said the unofficial limit is 5 mph.

“Anything over 5 mph would be excessive,” said Chris Bear, co-owner of Paths, Peaks & Paddles on Ellicott Creek Road. “You don’t see regular power boats, pretty much canoes and kayaks. People basically just troll along.”

At the point the creek empties into the Erie Barge Canal, a 6 mph speed limit is in place, said Vercellone. “Being as small as the creek is, it’s not a standard operating waterway. The depths are not charted, and it is not considered navigable by motorcraft, though it’s still a public waterway that local boaters will use it as long as they can fit under the bridges.”

Safety standards are set by U.S. Department of Transportation navigation rules.

Bear regularly teaches safety classes for kayakers and canoeists on Ellicott Creek. She is not accustomed to seeing many boaters before sunrise.

“Anyone you see that early is usually fishing,” Bear said. “It depends on what is common practice for you, the time of day and the season.”

Tonawanda Police Capt. Joseph F. Carosi is working with the help of the New York State Police, the Erie County Sheriff’s Marine Unit and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office on the case.

Meanwhile, a GoFundMe crowdfunding page established to help the Gardner family with funeral expenses totaled $2,500 Saturday afternoon.

A note on the funding Web page stated: “Avery was such a smart girl and she loved animals. It’s sad to say that God has taken her so soon but know that her goofy personality and beautiful self is watching over all of us.”

Survivors include her parents, Walter and Kristy Gardner, and her siblings, Alyssa, Xavier, Arien, Elizabeth Sherman and Hunter Townsend.