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911 Plea Fails Teens Missing in Icy Waters

The four are believed to have drowned after boarding a dinghy in Long Island Sound. Dispatcher botched a call for help, police say.

January 29, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It is a small-town tragedy in a New England-style seacoast village that stands incongruously in the Bronx.

Police searched the icy waters off City Island again Tuesday for four teenagers who set off in darkness in a tiny rowboat after attending a party Friday night. No trace of the eight-foot dinghy or its occupants has been found.

Authorities believe the boys drowned, and said at best they could have survived only 30 minutes in the frigid waters of Long Island Sound.

Any chance of a rescue was snuffed out when a 911 telephone operator bungled a frantic cell phone distress call from one of the teens who said the boat was sinking.

Instead of quickly relaying the plea for help Friday night to harbor units, which would have started searching with helicopters, launches and scuba divers, the operator ignored Police Department regulations and merely notified a supervisor.

Rescue efforts did not begin until 14 hours later, when parents reported the boys missing.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly labeled the mishandled call a clear violation of procedures.

As search operations continued under wintry skies gray with the threat of snow, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and two Democratic congressmen urged New York state officials to speed up a program allowing 911 operators to pinpoint the location of cell phone calls.

On City Island, a narrow sand spit with a single main street, many residents mixed their grief with regret at what they labeled teenage recklessness.

"You don't do that, put four adults in a dinghy. They overloaded the boat," said John DeCuffa, 39, owner of Jack's Bait and Tackle Shop, expressing the feelings of many in this maritime community of 4,500 permanent residents, where several America's Cup-contending boats have been built.

Veteran mariners speculated that the teenagers might have cracked the fiberglass rowboat putting it into the icy water. The mariners called it perilous, if not folly, to venture out in darkness in frigid temperatures with only a set of oars.

"They weren't thinking. You can't be messing around with the waters this time of year," said a fishing boat captain who asked that his name not be used. "If you fall in, you got 15 minutes or so."

Jacqueline Kyle Kall, 77, a real estate broker, estimated an even shorter survival time.

"They would have been dead in 10 minutes," she said.

Kall said the teens were trying to row about a mile across Long Island Sound to Hart Island, which contains Potter's Field, a city cemetery where many unclaimed bodies are buried.

On Saturday morning, a guitar belonging to one of the teens was found in Pelham Cemetery, a burial ground in Westchester County, north of City Island.

Kelly said the 911 operator, who was not named, received a 12-second phone call at 9:58 p.m. on Friday. The call was later traced to a cell phone belonging to Henry Badillo, 17.

He is missing, along with Carlo Wertenbaker and Andrew Melnikov, both 16, and Max Guarino, 17.

The police commissioner said the caller asked for help, stating in essence, "We are taking on water ... on the Long Island Sound ... near City I."

The connection went dead and no calls followed.

After a computer rejected the location given during the brief phone cry for help, Kelly said the operator and supervisor logged the fact the call was received but took no further action.

At the time, the closest police boat to City Island was about 30 minutes away. The estimated traveling time of a police helicopter unit with scuba divers was about 20 minutes.

Longtime residents said Wertenbaker was the only teen in the boat who grew up on the island.

City Island, which is linked to the Bronx by a small bridge, has been undergoing changes in recent years. Restaurants and condos have replaced some of its picturesque boatyards. Housing prices have climbed with the arrival of physicians, scientists and other professionals seeking a small-town atmosphere on a shoreline. Parking spaces are harder to find -- especially during the summer when it is a tourist attraction and when thousands of people visit nearby Orchard Beach.

But with its shingle-style houses, stores with nautical themes, sailmakers' shops and fishing boats, it remains a community apart from much of New York.

"People don't believe it is part of the Bronx," Kall said. "But as with everywhere else, there are urban pressures."

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