They were all 23 and 24 years old, their whole lives seemingly ahead of them.
They were visiting the North Fork to celebrate a major event in one of their friends’ lives.
Then, as the driver of the limousine they booked to help keep them safe on a trip to local wineries attempted to make a U-turn on Route 48 and Depot Lane in Cutchogue, the lives of the four friends came to a tragic end Saturday.
Steve Romeo, 55, of Southold was charged with driving while intoxicated after his pickup truck allegedly t-boned the limousine while traveling westbound along County Road 48 shortly after 5 p.m.
The crash took the lives of Brittany Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack.
Three of the victims died on scene and the fourth died at Peconic Bay Medical Center, Southold Town police chief Martin Flatley said.
Injured but surviving the crash were four additional passengers: Joelle Dimonti, 25, of Elwood; Melissa Crai, 23, of Scarsdale; Alicia Arundel, 24, of Setauket; and Olga Lipets, 24, of Brooklyn. The driver of the limousine, 58-year-old Carlos Pino of Bethpage, was also treated for non-life threatening injuries at a Suffolk County hospital.
The limo had just left Vineyard 48 and was heading east before the driver attempted the ill-fated turn.
Fire crews from Cutchogue, Mattituck, East Marion, Greenport, Southold and Jamesport all responded to the scene. Two Suffolk County police helicopters assisted in the rescue, landing directly on Route 48, which remained closed in both directions for several hours. The road was open again by 11:40 p.m.
The crash scene was devastating to those with the misfortune to drive past it Saturday.
“As we came around, all we saw were bodies out the left side of the vehicle, hanging out,” said Lynne Lulfs, a Hampton Bays woman who witnessed the accident. “It was surreal; it did not look real.”
Witnessing the tragedy hit home for Ms. Lulfs, who said her father died in a car accident when she was young.
“This will resonate with us forever,” she said.
Neighbors of the intersection said it’s a frequent spot for crashes. Ruth Urwand, who lives on Depot Lane, said she believes a regular stoplight should replace the blinking light that’s currently there.
Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Elizabeth Miller said additional charges are expected in the case as Mr. Romeo is currently facing just one misdemeanor drunk driving charge.
“At this time we are continuing the investigation and looking at upgrading the charges,” she said, adding that Mr. Romeo is due in Southold Town Justice Court Friday.
When asked about the emotional state of his client, defense attorney Dan O’Brien of Nesconset said, “It’s a tough, tough situation.” He declined to say where Mr. Romeo was headed at the time of the crash.
Ms. Miller said one of the women was “a bride,” and the friends were celebrating “an upcoming event.”
“I don’t believe it was a bridal party, but they were celebrating,” she said in reference to reports that the women visited the North Fork for a bachelorette party.
News of the fatal crash led friends and family of the victims to post memories of them on social media.
An anguished man who answered the phone at Ms. Baruch’s house Sunday afternoon declined to comment, saying only that he couldn’t talk. “I’m sorry,” he said.
One Commack woman, who asked to be identified only as the mother of one of Ms. Grabina’s friends said “she was such a vibrant girl.”
“She tried everything,” the woman said. “She was young — a young girl. I can’t even imagine what her parents are going through right now.”
According to her Facebook profile, Ms. Grabina graduated from Florida State University in 2014 and had been hired less than a month ago as a staff accountant at New York City firm Ernst & Young.
Mr. Romeo pleaded not guilty at his bedside arraignment at Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, where he is being treated for non-life threatening injuries. Southold Town Justice Rudolph Breuer set cash bail at $500,000 or $1 million bond.
The Southold businessman was previously involved in a fatal accident in January 2014 at a construction site in Mattituck, when a 30-year-old worker was struck in the head and killed by a bucket that fell off of a skid-steer loader being operated by Mr. Romeo. He was not charged in that incident, but the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued citations and fined the business, in part because Mr. Romeo had not been trained to use the equipment he was operating.
A wrongful death suit filed by the worker’s family against Romeo Dimon Marine and the owner of the construction site is pending in New York State Supreme Court, online court records show.
A representative from Romeo Dimon Marine’s Southold office declined to comment on the fatal crash Sunday morning.
“It’s a private matter,” he told a Suffolk Times reporter, declining to identify himself. “It has nothing to do with business. I have no comment. Nothing to say to you.”
Top photo: The intersection of Depot Lane and Route 48 in Cutchogue where four women where killed when an alleged drunk driver plowed into the limo they were riding in on Saturday afternoon. (Credit: Vera Chinese)