Thursday, May 14, 2009

Glad to be Back on Dry Land

Friends Rescued at Sea After Boat Sank

By Patricia Adams

A fishing excursion planned by a group of friends was, according to authorities, no more than 15 minutes away from turning deadly. Boat owner Anthony Dattolo, 26 and his girlfriend Lisa Shavers, 24 have been taking their 25-foot boat out with friends to go fishing since last season without incident.

Howard Beach residents Danielle Caliendo, 26 and Anthony Blas, 23 are friends of Dattolo and Shavers and were aboard the boat that sunk off waters near the Marine Parkway Bridge after midnight on Saturday night.

“Anthony [Dattolo] is so conscientious about everything on the boat,” said Danielle. “It can accommodate up to 12 passengers, but he never allows more than 6 at a time.” They had been going out as a group three to four times a week last year and at least once or twice a week this year. In addition, she said that there were at least 15 life jackets aboard the craft. Dattolo is certified and licensed to drive the boat and Lisa Shavers is a member of the auxiliary Coast Guard.

On Saturday night, when the four left the dock in Sheepshead Bay with two other friends from Ozone Park, Erik Halka, 25, and Jason Damone, 25, they had no way of knowing what was in store for them. Before the night was over, the trip to snag some bluefish would soon turn into a nightmare of epic proportions for the young fishing crew.

They left the dock about 9 PM on Saturday night and got out to the waters around the Marine Park Bridge about 9:30. The six, who have been friends since grammar school, joked about how calm the water was; how it resembled an ice skating rink. The weather was fine — they were all wearing T-shirts. Reports had been checked and there were no small craft advisories in effect.

“We were having a great time,” said Danielle, “I caught my first bluefish.” Then, she said everything changed so quickly. “The storm came in so fast,” said Anthony Blas, “from out of nowhere.” Dattolo took the lead, telling everyone to keep calm as he sounded a mayday. Ironically, as Dattolo was sending out a mayday from his boat, he learned later that a small craft advisory had gone into effect at the same time. Less than three hours into their fishing trip, enjoyment was replaced by a sense of urgency and fear that swept across the boat as quickly as the waves that continued to fill the craft with water.

“We’ve got to try and get back,” Dattolo told his friends and decided to head for the Venice Marina where the boat is docked. “The waves were the biggest any of us had ever seen,” Danielle told The Forum. She described how they tried to stay in the back of the boat to keep the weight distributed.

With huge waves continuing to wash over the boat, Anthony Dattolo remained unsure that his Mayday was heard. “He couldn’t hear a response. We had no way of knowing if anyone heard him or not,” said Anthony Blas.

In the meantime Lisa and Danielle tried to make their way to get extra life jackets for everyone. But some of the vests had already been swept overboard. Now the boat was taking on water quickly. The six friends grabbed for seat cushions to substitute for life vests. The water in the boat had risen past their shins.

Erik Halka made his way to the front of the boat where there was a surplus of life jackets stored in a compartment in the floor. “Erik was trying to get them [the vests] out of the floor hold. Then a wave came and he was knocked off into the water,” said Danielle. “We were screaming his name. It was sheer terror.” Halka grabbed a buoy at the front of the boat and clung to it in the stormy seas. Halka’s friends back in the boat now stood in water up to their knees.

Only minutes later, Danielle tried to make her way to the front of the boat when her foot got caught in an open compartment. She lost her balance and slipped into the cold waters. “I wanted to try and get back in the boat but I didn’t want to risk turning it over completely,” said Danielle. Seconds later, she was next to her boyfriend Anthony Blas — he had jumped in after her. They both grabbed seat cushions floating near them.

The couple tried to swim to Erik Halka. “Anthony just kept trying to keep us calm,” said Danielle. “We tried to swim back toward the boat but the tide was too strong for us to match.” Finally, they managed to get closer to Erik. Danielle remembered the thoughts that played over and over in her mind. “We have to stay together. We have to stay calm.”

Back on the boat, Jason Damone and Lisa Shavers had both managed to keep their cell phones dry. Holding the phones overhead, the pair made frantic calls to 911 trying to give the operator an idea of where they were and what was going on. In the water the three could hear their friend screaming. His voice was panicked. “You’ve got to get someone here! My friends are in the water. We’re watching them slip away.”

It was about 15 minutes later that the three friends adrift were being carried out even further by the tide. “We kept trying to keep the bridge in our view, the waves kept smacking us in the back of the head. It all seemed to be slipping away,” remembers Danielle. “We lost sight of the boat and our friends. We were cold. My legs were tingling. I said a prayer to my grandmother. I remember thinking this was it.”

About 150 yards away were their three friends clutched on whatever parts of the boat were reachable. They were cold and exhausted. Overhead there was a new sound. The blades of an NYPD helicopter, shining its lights on the waters below.

The 911 calls from Jason and Lisa had alerted emergency crews of their peril; the mayday calls placed by Anthony Dattolo had been heard. Help was within sight.

The NYPD chopper hovered overhead. It flew back and forth between the two groups before turning to fly off. The pilot flew back to guide the Captain Dave Fishing/Party Boat to help with the rescue. “The water was too rough to get near us,” Danielle explained, “so the crew and the passengers were holding poles out for us to grab onto. When we got close enough they pulled us up with rope."

Once aboard the Capt. Dave they were stripped of their wet clothes. Passengers and crew took off their own clothing and used it to cover the freezing trio. “They huddled around us,” said Anthony Blas, “it was amazing. These people were really pulling for us.”

And back in the water, another vessel, the sea-tow vehicle of Capt. Cody Catapano had also followed the helicopter back to the scene. Catapano had heard Datollo’s mayday, got his first mate Dana and set out immediately. Now they set about rescuing Jason Damone, Lisa Shavers and Anthony Dattolo.

Less than a half-hour after the first sighting of the chopper, six friends had been plucked from the water. They were all suffering from hypothermia, but Anthony Dattolo was turning blue and Erik Halka was also in more serious condition than the others. All were taken back to the closest dock in Coney Island where they were taken to a Brooklyn hospital, treated and released.

In the wake of her personal storm, Catholic school teacher Danielle Caliendo thought about having been delivered from a night of hell. As for the experience she shared with already close friends, Danielle smiled and speculated it was just another way of making them even closer than before. They discussed the possibility of getting matching tattoos -Six went in. Six came out — to symbolize the strength of their friendship.

As far as getting back into the water, Danielle says they’ll all take baby steps. And if the urge for fishing becomes too overwhelming, they plan on boarding the Capt. Dave and shoving off under the watchful eye of one of their heroes.

Smiling faces have replaced frowns and fears in those rescued from cold waters after their fishing boat sank in a sudden storm. From left to right, friends Anthony Dattolo, Jason Damone, Danielle Caliendo, Lisa Shaver and First Mate Dana. Behind them Capt. Cody Catapano stands with Anthony Blas.

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