NEW YORK — The captain of a cabin cruiser that capsized in the inky waters off Long Island after an Independence Day outing, killing three children, says he noticed lightning bolts in the sky minutes before a powerful wave slammed the 34-foot boat and flipped it over.
"It just bellied up," a weeping Sal Aureliano told Long Island's News12 television Thursday as details of the late-night tragedy unfolded, and as questions arose as to whether overcrowding could have caused the yacht to overturn. The dead were trapped in the cabin; 24 other people on the vessel escaped without serious injuries.
Sobbing relatives fell into the arms of rescue workers as the fates of the missing children, all from suburban Long Island, became known. They were identified as David Aureliano, 12, who was Sal Aureliano's nephew; Harlie Treanor, 11; and Victoria Gaines, 8. Newsday reported that Harlie and David were cousins.
Lt. John Azzata, a homicide detective with the Nassau County Police Department, told reporters that rescue workers were able to pull one of the bodies from the boat's cabin late Wednesday, but dangerous conditions made it impossible to reach the other two until Thursday.
"The divers, you can imagine, have a lot of equipment on. Now they have to get into a cabin to rescue people," he said. "First they have to find their way into the cabin, and once they get in, they have to find their way out. The boat is sinking and drifting the whole time."
Azzata said the boat was in about 21 feet of water, just inside Cold Spring Harbor, when someone called 911 about 10:10 p.m. to report it had capsized and was sinking. Within minutes, it had drifted nearly a mile and came to rest in 60 to 70 feet of water, where it remained Thursday. Azzata said the 1984 Silverton yacht was 34 feet long, but he did not know the model and could not say how many people it was designed to carry.
Aureliano, of Huntington, N.Y., said his brother-in-law owned the boat but that he was steering it because he had more maritime experience.
"We went to see the fireworks and we were coming home, and a wave got us, and it turned the boat around. It just turned the boat," Aureliano told News12.
"I didn't see it," he said of the wave, shaking his head. "It just came. It just turned us right over."
Thunderstorms were reported in the area Wednesday night, and Aureliano had commented on two lightning bolts as he motored toward land after the fireworks show.
"I told my nephew who was in front … 'Did you see that?' He goes, 'Yeah, Uncle Sal.' The next thing I knew, we were turning. And we just kept turning. Everybody was in the water, and chaos," Aureliano said.
Azzata said investigators would consider weather as they tried to determine the cause of the accident, as well as the number of people on the boat and the possibility of a severe wake from another vessel. He ruled out drugs or alcohol as contributing factors.
Investigators will also look into whether the boat had enough life jackets; it would have been required to carry one for each passenger. Azzata would not say whether the children who died had life jackets on, but they would not have been required to wear them inside the cabin.
WABC-TV interviewed a witness on a nearby boat who said she did not see any life vests on the two dozen people who were thrown into the water. The witness, Danielle Barbone, said people on her boat yelled at those floundering in the sea to swim over. "We just started plucking them out like ants."
Barbone said one of those rescued was the mother of one of the girls who died. "She was screaming her daughter's name."