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Experts to Probe What Went Wrong in Fatal Sinking

The death of three children, including one from Huntington Station, places boating safety in the forefront.

A confluence of tragic circumstances conspired to capsize and sink a large pleasure boat Wednesday night, leavingin the waters near Oyster Bay, experts and eyewitnesses said Thursday.

What all observers agree upon is how the Independence Day tragedy accentuates the need for strict boating safety and vigilance on the waters.

The doomed cabin cruiser, now lying some of Long Island Sound, may hold answers to what went wrong just after the conclusion of a large, annual fireworks display that drew hundreds of boaters to nearby waters.

A salvage team is expected to raise the wreck and deliver it to Nassau Police investigators, but police and the U.S. Coast Guard are not yet sure how that will be accomplished.

Among the key questions that need to be answered are:

  • Were there too many people aboard the 34-foot Silverton at the time. Investigators said 27 were aboard when it capsized. Boating experts believe that number to be excessive for a boat of that size.
  • Did speeding boats making a fast getaway from the area cause a large wake sufficient to capsize the boat?
  • Was pilot error to blame in any way?
  • Was approaching bad weather a factor?
  • Were there a sufficient number of life vests aboard? One is required for each passenger (although they need not be worn by all.)

Pam Setchell was an eyewitness to the events, watching the fireworks from her boat. She was one of many who considered the stricken vessel to be overloaded.

"We saw the (Silverton) boat earlier, not too far from us, and I had a thought that there’s a lot of people on that boat," said Setchell, president of the Huntington Lighthouse Preservation Society, which puts on a music festival each year on the waters by the lighthouse. "We got caught up in looking at the fireworks.”

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Those on Setchell's boat decided to anchor after the show ended because of the reports of bad weather. They sat out the downpour, which another eyewitness described as a "squall," and then turned for home.

It was then that Setchell saw the capsized boat in the water, its hull bobbing at the water line.

"I am sure he got hit by the wake of a boat because you get these yahoos who are pulling out and don’t care what their wake is," she said. "I’m sure he got broadsided by a wake."

"I’ve been there for many years, and anyone who’s been there knows that you wait for 40 minutes for the drunks and idiots to take off and go home," said Jon ten Haagen, executive officer of the Greater Huntington Council of Yacht & Boating Clubs, who was not in Oyster Bay Wednesday night. "I’ve had big power boats go by and they rock the hell of out you."

For ten Haagen, one question is paramount: "Why were there 27 people on a 34-foot boat?" and “Who in their right mind would take 27 people in the dark to a fireworks display?”

The accident, said ten Haagen, “turns my stomach.”

The three children who died in the tragedy were identified as David Aureliano 12, , 11, and Victoria Gaines 8. Two of them were found inside the cabin, the third in the water.

Harlie was a Huntington Station resident and Victoria was scheduled to start third grade at a Washington school in the fall.

Divers from the Nassau Police and members of the Atlantic Steamers Fire Department engaged in an heroic effort to recover the children. Although the boat capsized in about 20 feet of water shortly after 10 a.m., it began drifting through the mouth of the twin harbors and sank to about 70 feet of depth beneath Long Island Sound.

The daring rescue attempts were made as the boat continued to drift and sink deeper into the blackened waters, police said. Two of the bodies were recovered inside the hull, police said.

The annual fireworks display is sponsored by the Dolan family, which owns Cablevision. The boat was located between Centre Island and Lloyd Neck, the  peninsula that, with the intervening peninsula of Cove Neck, form the dual entrances to Oyster Bay to the west and Cold Spring Harbor to the east.

Bay constables in patrol boats employed by the Town of Oyster Bay were present at the event and assisted in rescue efforts. Scores of other vessels helped to pull the surviving 24 boaters to safety.

The town wouldn't comment Thursday on any aspect of its role in the patrol of the harbor, enforcement policies or their efforts regarding the rescue. A town spokeswoman referred all questions to Nassau Police, who could provide none of those answers.

While the wakes left by speeding boats can be dangerous, the area where the sinking took place - an opening between Centre Island and Lloyd Neck, has no speed restrictions, a review of NOAA maps show. (See attached image.)

Still, experienced boats say dangerous operation can have tragic consequences:

“You are responsible for the wake you produce," said Setchell. "I have gone to this display for last several years. There are a lot of people who the minute the display ends, they’re pulling up anchors, pulling away. They create such an array of wave action.”

Nassau County Detective Lt. John Azzata said Thursday that there are many reasons the boat could have went down and cited a wake from another boat or overcrowding as possible factors.

No one has been charged in connection with the incident.

Azzata, chief of the homicide squad, said the capacity of a vessel must not exceed the manufacturer's limits, which are displayed on a plate attached to the cabin of all boats. Azzata said police don't yet know the capacity of this vessel or the number of life jackets on board.

He said 1984 model Silverton yacht had recently been purchased but did not have more information. 

“They are known to be bow heavy, extra weighty in the bow which makes them not go straight," said ten Haagen of the Silverton. "They’re heavy on the top. Because of the fireworks, there were probably a ton of people on the bridge, which makes it that much more unstable.”

Lori K July 06, 2012 at 01:46 PM
My family twice made the trip by boat for the fireworks display from Northport Harbor. I can say without a doubt, that the chaos that ensues after the show is frightening. You are literally swaying and bobbing uncontrollably for 15 minutes, caused by the converging of wakes of 100's of boats large and small, making it nearly impossible for smaller boats to steer safely. Add the boaters who have been drinking along with the total darkness, and this was a disaster in the making for years. It takes an extremely experienced boater to navigate through that waterway at the end of the show. It was the kind of trip that made us hold our breath and hold on for dear life. Never again. A terrible tragedy for those families.
Pat & Erin July 06, 2012 at 01:57 PM
I wouldn't be so bold as to bring up which race contributes to lack of boat safety, but I will point out that ANYONE who has a boat has to understand Maritime Law. That said whoever is the captain - whether it's a five foot dinghy or a fifty foot pleasure craft, the Captain is responsible for all on board. Clearly, having the amount of people aboard this vessel was reckless, no matter what the weather was. Sadly three children will now never grow up and the guilt their parents must live with is unmeasurable. I agree with the previous commentator - where were the officials entrusted to police the waters? At an event of this size no one in an official capacity notices this boat? Scuttlebutt among the fisherman and people along the docks is that the captain was charging people $50 bucks a head to get aboard his vessel to view the fireworks. If thats the case I say haul his butt to court and let the system work out it's own form of judgement. What a waste of life if that's the case. If he wasn't charging money to go see the show he has a lot to answer for in the public forum as well as with God. My heart goes out to the families who have paid a terrible price,
RWolfer July 06, 2012 at 02:06 PM
Blame the wakes, blame the darkness, the culprit is stupidity.
Pat & Erin July 06, 2012 at 02:18 PM
Unless there was something structurally wrong with the vessel, it is the Captains fault per Maritime Law. Weather happens, the Captain always needs to be prepared. Wakes and other boaters lack of seamanships happens, the Captain needs to be always prepared. Darkness happens every night, Captains always need to be prepared...people should stop "wondering" what happened and look at the situation from a common standpoint, you do not fill up a boat over capacity. Theres a reason the boat manufacturers have a limit stated. There is no way one Captain can reasonably watch out for 27 or more people on a 34ft boat in the dark, in an overcrowded area of water. And if there was such a Captain let him voice his opinion as I would surely like to hear how he would have acted.
douglas stretton July 06, 2012 at 06:36 PM
In the days and weeks that follow, the true circumstances surrounding this tragedy will unfold. And the case will be heard in a court of law, be it civil, criminal or both. This is 2012 and I'm quite sure a complete and proper investigation will be conducted. Those responsible for this accident will be held accountable for their actions on that day and night. Most accidents start out with a single mistake. In my opinion, it started when the captain left the dock with 27 people on board and the boat was rated for 15. A very poor decision that has left 3 children dead before their lives even started. But this case won't be tried in the court of "public opinion". We have to trust in our system of justice, so that it can speak for all of us. My heart goes out to all those who have and will suffer behind this. Let's not forget the brave and good sailers that came to their aid and risked themselves to try and save others. They should serve as an example to all of us in our everyday lives.
douglas stretton July 06, 2012 at 07:02 PM
In a final comment: I would like to emplore anyone or anyone that knows anyone with information regarding this accident, to contact the Nassau County Police or the Coast Guard. Any information will be welcomed by them.
Babaloo July 06, 2012 at 09:42 PM
It didn't take long for someone to blame the Mexicans, the current scapegoat de jour. A few years ago it was the blacks who were the cause of society's ills, the Jews before that, Italians, Greeks, Irish. the list goes on. Unbelievable. Every year we have the same problem and the solution is this... Boat operators need to be licensed and tested before they can operate a boat in public waters. Currently, THERE ARE NO LICENSE REQUIREMENTS TO OWN AND OPERATE A BOAT LESS THAN 65 FEET IN LENGTH. Until that is changed, there will be stupid, preventable accidents with loss of life. We need to pressure these elected 'officials' in Albany to get the ball rolling. I've been a boater for a very long time and every year there are needless accidents that occur on the water. It's amazing how a federal license is required to operate a HAM radio but nothing but a big check book keeps you from driving a 10 ton boat. By the way, I happen to know how the bay constables, marine bureau cops, and especially the coasties work they're butts off saving life and property during the summer and tip my hat to them whenever I pass. If it's such a dick job, why don't you apply?
Jerome Rounds July 06, 2012 at 10:11 PM
All accidents are a chain of events that if any one is stopped the accident will not happen. That said the captain's first and worst error was taking 27 people on board a vessel that small. In figuring the weight of aircraft passengers a a pilot figures a per person weight of 170 pounds. This weight times 27 is over two tons of people. If the boat was hit on the beam by a strong wake the passengers, all two tons of them would be thrown to the other side of the vessel thus tipping the vessel further beyong it's righting point. This is strictly conjecture and I look forward to the USCG investigation and the results of the same.
linda c July 07, 2012 at 02:01 PM
My heart breaks for the three little innocent lives lost. So sad. We definitely need need our Maritime laws revisited. There are more boaters, jet skiers, etc.. on the water everyday. I have lived on the shoreline my whole life, my parents would shout to us to "watch for the boats"when we were in the water and now I'm saying the same words to our children. Boats come too close to shore, too much liquor, inexperienced drivers,etc...all the problems. We are a coastal state we need stringent boating regulations. Would you put eight people i a two seater car? No. Every car,boat,bike, has its limit. So sad. So tragic.
Amy July 07, 2012 at 02:28 PM
If capacity is determined by weight, not amount of people, then 10 children weigh much less than 10 adults. But, please let's allow the authorities to work it out. These were all close friends and family members who are all in mourning. This tragedy has rocked our community--we all are in some way connected to these children, to their parents. Let's not throw rocks, but say prayers instead. I can't even imagine the pain they must all be feeling.

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