A yacht that capsized with 27 friends and family aboard on an outing to watch Fourth of July fireworks was severely overcrowded and doomed to tip over, safety experts said Thursday as the skipper blamed the tragedy on a wave that came out of the dark.
Three children died after becoming trapped Wednesday night in the cabin of the 34-foot vessel off Oyster Bay, on the north shore of Long Island.
Sal Aureliano, who was at the helm of the Candi I, told TV's News12 Long Island that he saw two lightning bolts and then a wave suddenly hit.
"It turned the boat around," he said, his voice cracking. "It just turned the boat. I didn't see it. It was dark. I didn't see it."
Aureliano's nephew David Aureliano, 12, and two girls, 11-year-old Harley Treanor and 8-year-old Victoria Gaines, died. The 24 other passengers, adults and children, were rescued from the water, mostly by fellow boaters, and were not seriously hurt.
"The next thing I know, we're turning, and we just kept turning, and everybody was in the water. It was chaos," Aureliano said, who was unavailable for comment to NBC 4 New York.
The cause of the accident was under investigation, but it could have been the weather, overcrowding, the wake from another vessel or a combination of factors, said Nassau County Detective Lt. John Azzata. The area was crowded with boaters watching the fireworks, he said.
The Silverton yacht, built in 1984 but purchased recently, was under 60 feet of water Thursday, and officials worked to raise it. The yacht company filed for bankruptcy in April, and no one was available to say what the maximum number aboard should be.
Police and the Coast Guard would not say how many of those aboard were adults and how many were children. Safety experts said most boats have a manufacturer's plate that lists capacity by number of adults and by total weight. So theoretically, a boat could safely handle more passengers if some were children.
Gary Pedersen, a New Jersey boater whose grandfather founded the Raritan Marina and who has decades of experience on the waters, said it was obvious to him that the Silverton yacht was badly overloaded.
"As soon as I heard there were 27 people on a 34-foot Silverton, I knew right away there were too many people on the boat," Pedersen said as he took an NBC 4 New York reporter aboard a nearly identical yacht.
Pedersen said a vessel of that size could safely accommodate up to six to eight people.
"They had a lot of tonnage on the boat," he said. "If 27 people moved to one side of this boat, it's going over," he said
Each Fourth of July, vessels crowd the Long Island Sound shoreline to watch public and private fireworks displays. When the shows end, the exodus can be the nautical equivalent of a highway traffic jam.
Boater John Commons said the water was crowded with vessels, many of which clearly had more people on board than their designated capacities.
"There were so many boats out there," he said. "A lot of people had too many people on the boats."
Another boater, Sammy Balasso, of Oyster Bay, told Newsday he saw the yacht turn and then tip over after it was hit by a wake.
"It was like in slow motion," said Balasso. "All of a sudden, a lot of bodies were in the water."
Balasso said he put the spotlight of his 38-foot speedboat on the capsized vessel and threw all the life jackets he had into the water. He said he rescued 20 people.
"Everybody was panicking," Balasso said. "People were saying things like 'Why?'"
Mitch Kramer was also one of the first divers who arrived at capsized boat.
"Once we showed up, people were yelling there might have been children trapped in the boat," he said. "Immediately you get into your mode to get in there and see what you can do."
Douglas Schardler, the fire chief in Bayville, told NBC 4 New York a violent rainstorm swept through the waters.
"It was just -- as quick as it came in, as quick as it left," said Schardler.
Azzata said the boat should have had a life jacket for each person on board, but it was unclear if it did. Under state law, children under 12 are not required to wear life vests if they are in the main cabin, where the three victims were.
Mike Treanor, who was related to some of the victims, answered the door at his suburban home in nearby Huntington.
"It's a family tragedy," he said.
Funeral services for 11-year-old Treanor have been posted to M.A. Connell Funeral Home's website.
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