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.”