Holiday Tragedy: Dreams Shattered as Groom-to-Be Dies in Boat Crash

Driver of larger boat arrested after failing Breathalyzer test

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A family mourns a 30-year-old man killed in a boat crash, allegedly by a drunken driver, near the Statue of Liberty just weeks before his wedding.

    Hopes for a relaxing holiday weekend came tragically to an end for a family in New Jersey after a groom-to-be died in a boat crash near the Statue of Liberty.

    Two pleasure crafts collided in New York harbor Friday evening -- killing 30-year-old Jijo Puthuvamkunnath, who was set to be married in less than eight weeks, and injuring two others. Police arrested the driver of one of the boats, 39-year-old Richard Aquilone, after he failed a Breathalyzer test.

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    Aquilone was behind the wheel with his wife and three young children on board when his 30-foot boat "T-boned" a 20-foot boat carrying Puthuvamkunnath and two friends, splitting it in half. He and his family were physically unhurt.

    For relatives of Puthuvamkunnath and his fiancee, Sissy Chako, however, the impact was remarkable -- and permanent.

    Puthuvamkunnath was set to marry Aug. 28. He just finished his doctorate degree in physical therapy -- and now he’s gone.

    It's "really, really tragic," said Sally Rivera, a neighbor of the victim.

    People stopped by the family’s Bergenfield, N.J., home. Most relatives were too devastated to speak of the horrific situation, but one cousin said, as he choked back tears, that he is not angry with the person police say is responsible, just disappointed that he didn't think twice before he got behind the wheel. 

    Investigators charged Aquilone with vehicular manslaughter, operating a vessel under the influence of alcohol and endangering the welfare of a child. They say he was drunk while driving his boat, named "Reel Impulsive," Friday night.

    Those who know Aquilone were both shocked and devastated to learn he may have been responsible for the tragedy.

    "He loved children, loved his family," said Adiam Atsepha, a friend of Aquilone.

    Neighbors had only positive things to say about him and emphasized he never showed any signs of alcohol abuse.

    "He’s a wonderful wonderful man, wonderful father and I’m sure there is some other explanation," said Paula Conway, a neighbor.

    No one answered the door when NBCNewYork knocked at an address in Jersey City listed for Aquilone, but children were heard playing inside. A woman's voice responded simply, "Go away."

    Aquilone's 2-year-old twins and 3-year-old son were on board when he crashed on top of the smaller boat anchored near the Statue of Liberty.

    Investigators say the impact left the smaller boat so mangled that it hampered the rescue effort. Puthuvamkunnath's two 30-year-old friends were hospitalized -- one with knee abrasions and one with a head laceration -- but are expected to recover.

    Rescuers managed to extricate Puthuvamkunnath from the debris, but he was pronounced dead of severe brain and head injuries at the hospital.

    Investigators say the wake of a tourist boat may have blocked Aquilone's view of the small boat -- an example of why the Coast Guard recommends that recreational boaters stay out of the main channel of the Hudson River.

    "These wakes can be dangerous for recreational vessels that are unaware of their surroundings," said Lt. Eric Hanson.

    Now Puthuvamkunnath's Orthodox Christian family is looking to God to somehow make sense of what has happened.

    "He was a very, very wonderful young man,'' said his aunt Aleyamma Varughese. "He was loved by everybody."