MARATHON, Fla. – A boater who was killed when a ray jumped out of the water in the Florida Keys and hit her face died of skull fractures and brain injuries, not from the animal's poisonous barb, a medical examiner said Friday.
Judy Kay Zagorski, 57, a community leader around her hometown of Pigeon, Mich., was in the front of a boat going 25 mph on Thursday when a 75-pound spotted eagle ray leapt from the water and hit her in a freak collision.
Monroe County's medical examiner, Dr. Michael Hunter, determined that the cause of death was "blunt force" head injury and that the collision with the ray killed her off Marathon, about 50 miles northeast of Key West.
Hunter's report noted she suffered "multiple skull fractures and direct brain injury resulting in sudden death," said Jorge Pino, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
She was not stung by the ray. The collision knocked Zagorski backward, onto the floor of the boat, Pino said.
"The force of that impact was dramatic," he said.
The family requested that no autopsy be performed, Pino said.
Zagorski was vacationing with her family in Marathon. She was on the boat with her father, Virgil Bouck, 88, who was driving; her mother, Verneta; and her sister, Joyce Ann Miller, Pino said.
Zagorski's brother, Dan Bouck, called her a "truly awesome sister" who volunteered to work with terminally ill patients and operated a marina.
Her husband of 33 years, Steve, also died unexpectedly two years ago from complications after shoulder surgery, he said.
"We all miss Judy dearly. It just really hasn't even sunk in yet," Bouck said Friday.
In the 1990s, Judy and Steve Zagorski helped organize the Cheeseburger in Caseville Festival, a Caribbean-style celebration in the Saginaw Bay resort town of Caseville, Mich., The Saginaw News reported.
"Judy was pretty energetic, very motivated and willing to help anyone," Steve Louwers, Caseville Chamber of Commerce president, told the newspaper.
Spotted eagle rays can grow to about 17 feet long, including the tail, and weigh up to 500 pounds. Some have wingspans as wide as 10 feet.
They are not aggressive and use the venomous barb at the end of their tail for defense.
While they are known to occasionally jump out of the water to escape predators, remove parasites or give birth, collisions with humans are "unheard of," Pino said. "It was a freak, freak accident."
Spotted eagle rays are protected in Florida waters and are typically seen swimming in groups near the ocean's surface.
Ray encounters may be rare, but they do happen.
In 2006, a South Florida man was critically injured when a stingray flopped into his boat and stung him. James Bertakis, 82, of Lighthouse Point, underwent surgery after the stingray left a foot-long barb in his heart. He has since recovered.
"Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was killed in 2006 when a stingray's barb pierced his heart off Australia's Great Barrier Reef.