CORNELIUS – Nate Davis, former chairman of the Lake Norman Marine Commission, is asking himself why a man tasked with maintaining the safety of others on a luxury yacht charter excursion is now missing somewhere in the depths of Lake Norman.
Guerry Barbee, deputy chief firefighter at the Cornelius Fire Department, told The Herald Weekly that his team received a call about a man falling into the lake near the mouth of Davidson Creek late in the evening Sept. 1.
The Cornelius Fire Department, as well as the Charlotte, Denver and East Lincoln fire departments, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department all responded to the call, Barbee said.
After searching the black waves Sunday night and resuming the search on Labor Day, divers with their sonar equipment still came up empty-handed.
The search continued Tuesday and Wednesday, Sergeant Barry Rowell of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said. Rowell said witnesses saw a man fall off the side of a large charter boat, slip under the water and fail to reappear.
The base of operations for the rescue mission is stationed at the Beatty’s Ford Road access area in Denver, because it’s the closest strip of land to where the search is taking place, Rowell said.
Davis believes the missing man is his friend, Matthew Bell, who he said serves as a charter boat captain for Luxury Yacht Charters based in the area. The night of the accident, Davis saw updates from friends on Facebook saying that Bell was the missing person.
|Matthew Bell - Missing Person|
On the scene by 10:30 a.m. Sept. 1, Davis said law enforcement officers told him that 108 people were aboard the charter boat that night.
“I can’t remember not knowing Matt,” Davis said. “I have for as long as I’ve lived in Lake Norman.”
Bell is a strong swimmer in his mid-30s who is more than certified to charter boats, according to Davis.
Monte Velardi, a Huntersville resident who used to do security work for Luxury Yacht Charters several years ago, said he's known Bell since 2002. He said Bell is from Maryland and moved to North Carolina about 15 years ago, adding he lives in Charlotte and works for an engineering company that designs roadways as his full-time job.
"He was a captain for the day charter that day, but I heard he stayed on the night charter because his girlfriend was working on the boat that night as well, so he stayed to hang out," he said.
Velardi received a phone call around 2 a.m. Sept. 2 from his friend, Brian. Brian previously managed Luxury Yacht Charters, according to Velardi, and remains friends with the owners and Bell, whom he was told fell off the back of the boat by one of its owners.
"It seems strange because he's been on that boat hundreds of times, and the back of the boat is a hard place to fall off of," Velardi said. "Without being there, it's hard to know what happened. But something didn't add up in my mind."
Rowell estimates the depth of the water in the region where the man was last seen is somewhere between 80 and 100 feet.
“I know (my team) put a marker down to try to stay close to where it was, but by the time the captain learned someone had fallen out, he had to get that big boat stopped,” he said.
Davis said Bell was serving as the second captain on the boat that night, which is called “The Ragin’ Mistress” according to the company’s website.
“Typically, the second captain is the rule enforcer on the charter boats, making sure people behave,” Davis said. “I have never seen Matt drunk, and I know he wouldn’t drink while working as a captain. …. Why didn’t anyone throw a life buoy? Nothing adds up.”
Davis added that Bell had a heart problem and was taking medication for the condition.
Attempts to reach representatives from Luxury Yacht Charters have so far proved unsuccessful.