Driver plunges off Chappy ferry ramp into Edgartown Harbor

Police said Benjamin Knight intentionally drove his Toyota pickup truck into the harbor. Quick action by the assistant harbormaster saved the day.

Moments after he drove his truck off the Chappy ferry ramp and into the harbor, Benjamin Knight climbed out of the cab and onto the roof of his sinking vehicle as assistant harbormaster Mike Hathaway raced to his rescue. — Photo by Richard Gaughan

Edgartown Police said Benjamin Knight, 35, circled the Chappaquiddick ferry parking lot twice before he intentionally drove his white Toyota Tacoma pickup truck off the Chappy ferry ramp and into Edgartown harbor just before noon, Monday.

The swift current swept the truck into the channel and deeper water as Mr. Knight crawled out the window. Luckily, assistant Edgartown harbormaster Mike Hathaway just happened to be nearby in a patrol boat. Mr. Hathaway plucked Mr. Knight from the water and managed to secure a line to the truck and pull it out of the channel to the Chappy shoreline where it was later winched to dry land.

Mr. Knight was transported to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for mental and medical evaluation. He was not injured but was committed for mental evaluation, police said.

The Chappy ferry was not in the slip at the time of the accident. The truck barreled through a safety chain and a wooden lift gate that prevents entrance to the slip until the ferry operator signals vehicles to move forward.

Mr. Knight told officers that the gas pedal had become stuck and he could not stop his truck, according to a police press release.

“Investigation revealed that there had been no mechanical issue with the Toyota Tacoma pickup truck and it was a standard transmission,” police said. “Video footage showed that Knight had circled the ferry parking lot twice just prior to running off the ramp. Officers concluded that this was an intentional act.”

Police said Mr. Knight will be criminally charged “for a number of motor vehicle violations, disorderly conduct, and an immediate threat notification will be made to revoke his operator’s license.”

A security video camera mounted on the Seafood Shanty restaurant captured the truck traveling at a high rate of speed down the roadway and plunging into the harbor sending a plume of water skyward. A bystander who was on the Edgartown side of the channel said he turned to look after hearing a splash. “It was huge. I thought it was a whale,” he said.

“I was at home when I got the call from Captain Jeff LaMarche that there was a car in the water on the Chappy side,” Chappy ferry owner Peter Wells said as he piloted the On Time II from Edgartown wharf where emergency crews were at work recovering the truck. “I said, ‘could you repeat that please?’ I was told he drove right through the gate. There was no boat at the site. He floated long enough so the harbormaster could get to him, thank goodness.”

Quick action

The harbor current is quite swift as it rounds Chappy Point. Just off the beach the depth is more than 20 feet.

“That was very smart thinking by the harbormaster to pull it out of the slip before it sank,” Edgartown deputy chief/ambulance coordinator Alex Schaeffer said. After the truck was pulled from the water, Mr. Schaeffer inspected the engine and said the o-rings and head seals held, so there were no environmental concerns.

“It was just right place at the right time,” Mr. Hathaway said. “I was just finishing a routine check of the harbor and out of the corner of my eye I saw a truck coming very fast towards the ramp. I just went after it. If I’d gotten there any faster he would have hit me. It was lucky there weren’t any boats in the water.”

Mr. Hathaway said that when he got to Mr. Knight’s truck, he could see there were no other occupants in the vehicle. Mr. Knight was coherent.

“He was halfway out of the driver side window when I got there. I think his window must have been down. It could have been a lot worse if he had power windows and they were up,” he said.

Mr. Hathaway, a 15 year veteran of the Edgartown harbor department, was roundly praised by first responders for his quick thinking in pulling the truck out of the channel into shallower waters.

“It was just instinct. Luckily the stern of his truck had a tow hitch so that was a big help. I didn’t want to get in the way of the ferry. Once I got it out of the channel, I realized it was starting to go down and might possibly pull me down, so I cut it loose.”

Mr. Hathaway also had praise for Edgartown first responders. “When you look at the video, it’s almost exactly 11 am when it happened and an hour later, they had the truck out of the water.” he said. “One minute there was hardly anyone there, the next minute the harbor looked like the 4th of July. They got there very quickly.”

Mr. Hathaway said he received a call from Mr. Knight’s mother, thanking him for his fast action. “I’m just glad he’s okay,” he said.