Mount Pleasant resident Morgan Kiser is on a mission to ensure no one is forced to grapple with the trauma she and her mother endured on the water on Sept. 21, 2019.
That evening on what was supposed to be a relaxing Lake Murray after-dinner cruise with her parents, a speeding boat ran over the Kisers’ boat. Reacting just before impact, Morgan’s father Stanley pushed his wife Shawn out of the way.
Shawn Kiser’s lower leg was severed. Morgan Kiser, then 32, suffered a badly lacerated scalp. For more than an hour, she attempted CPR on her father while also struggling to maintain an ad-hoc tourniquet on her mother’s leg. Screaming into the dark for help and crying into a cellphone as rescue crews struggled to locate her boat, she eventually lost her father.
“They’re the most important, influential people in your life — the people who you look to for your structure, for your safety, for everything that you are as a person,” she said this week, choking back tears. “For those two people to be chopped apart in front of you. It was just so bad. When we got back, Dad was cold in my arms.”
The 53-year-old Elgin man driving the runaway boat eventually was charged with boating under the influence and reckless homicide. The bars that allegedly allowed him to become grossly intoxicated are also facing a lawsuit from Stanley Kiser’s estate. The cases have yet to go to trial.
In the ensuing years, Shawn Kiser has moved to Mount Pleasant, where she still receives physical therapy, and Morgan, who runs a cooking accessories business, has become a part-time Lowcountry resident, splitting time between Mount Pleasant and Columbia. Starting with a Facebook group called Safe the Lake, the pair and Morgan’s sister Sloan and brother Pierce have become advocates for boating safety education and legislation in South Carolina.
Despite having one of the highest per-capita rates of boat ownership and boating fatalities in the country, South Carolina remains one of a handful of states without an ongoing boating certification requirement for boaters over 16. It’s also perfectly legal to have a drink while driving a boat, so long as the driver isn’t intoxicated.
Despite no formal legislative training and with the help of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), S.C. Boating and Fishing Alliance Director Gettys Brannon and a slew of state politicians, the Kisers have managed to get a safe boating bill, H.3103, before the state legislature. While those under 16 are already required to obtain a boating education certificate from SCDNR, the bill would require those born after 2006 to become certified, too. The 2006 year is fixed, so as each year passes, more and more boaters must become licensed.
Kiser and allies including Republican S.C. Sens. Tom Davis of Beaufort and Chip Campsen of Charleston hoped the bill would be signed into law during this year’s legislative session. But concerns were raised by boat rental businesses and S.C. House legislators reportedly scuttled the bill.
Now in what they hope is a compromise, the senators have introduced a proviso into the 2022-23 state budget that would enact a year-long version of the law starting in July. It would require a fast pass education course for boat renters.
The bill’s backers acknowledge the measure does nothing to address onboard drinking or older boaters who actually have the highest accident rates. But Kiser, Davis and Campsen say, it’s a start.
“This bill is going to be a very slow-burning bill,” Kiser said. “Nobody’s trying to attack anyone. Nobody’s trying to take anyone’s rights away, you know, but my rights were taken away from me to have a parent and to not be thrown into a war scene.”
Not the same South Carolina
Campsen owns a company that runs the ferry to Fort Sumter. He is an experienced mariner and licensed captain who grew up boating offshore and plying Lowcountry waterways. In years past, he said, he opposed laws requiring boater certification — but no longer.
“Years ago, part of growing up in the Lowcountry was growing up in a boat,” he said. “That was the way of life. It was like in Iowa where pretty much everyone knew how to drive a tractor. That’s before this massive population and migration.
“This is not the same South Carolina anymore … And the point I make is this: You have to have a license to drive a car, right? Well, any idiot can still drive a car because there are traffic signals, lines on the highway. Everything tells you want to do. It’s almost mindless. In a boat, there’s nothing like that. You have to have far greater situational awareness. What’s the current doing? Who has the right of way? What do those blinking lights mean, why are those two lights lined up? When I grew up, people knew what they were doing. That no longer exists. It’s in the dustbin of history unfortunately, that’s why I changed my position.”
Legislators will take up the proviso during budget reconciliation process starting June 15. It’s not clear how the process will play out. But Kiser is hopeful and said she’s not going to stop pushing.
“Even after the trial is over, even if Dad does get the justice that he deserves, Mom’s gonna put that prosthetic leg on and she’s gonna be reminded of what happened,” she said. “So it will always be something that keeps us going — the idea that she did not lose her leg in vain. That Dad did not die in vain. Saving lives is just something we will never stop doing. Because we can’t.”
This story also appeared in Statehouse Report.
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