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Plum Island ferry, Orient firefighters pulled off water rescue in rough conditions

On a cold and blustery evening Saturday, a group of determined rescuers saved three men whose boat had sunk in Plum Gut, pulling one of them — who showed signs of hypothermia and was “barely hanging on” — to safety aboard the Plum Island ferry.

The men, all from Shirley, were taking a 34-foot 1963 Chris Craft wooden boat from Port Jefferson to Shirley when they struck rocks in bad weather and the boat took on water.

According to Southold Town police, Steven DiStefano, 36, of Shirley called 911 at 6:39 p.m. He said he and two other men were on a boat sinking in the “Greenport Canal.”

“The ‘Greenport Canal,’ of course, doesn’t exist,” said John Crowe of Wading River, captain of the Plum Island ferry.

Sitting at the dock in Orient Point waiting to make a scheduled 7 p.m. trip, he heard a distress call transmitted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Police dispatchers relayed what information they had to Sector Long Island Sound, but Capt. Crowe said the radio broadcasts were confusing and conflicting.

Back on Plum Island, Caroline Clements of Southold, a paramedic working at the federal research facility, also heard the broadcasts and looked out across the water. She spotted something about a mile to a mile and a half away, on the north side of Oyster Pond Reef, between the Orient Point Lighthouse and Orient Point, and called to Capt. Crowe, he recalled in a phone interview Tuesday. She thought it was a Jet Ski and could see someone waving.

“We took off in a hurry,” Capt. Crowe said. Aboard the 115-foot J.J. Callis ferry were his deckhand, Josh Hubbard of Southold, and Nicholas Galiano of Ridge, who works as boiler operator and firefighter on Plum Island, and is also a fisherman.

They found Mr. DiStefano, wearing a life vest, on the bow of the boat — the only part of the vessel still visible above the water. With one hand, he was gripping the rail; with the other he held his cellphone.

The wind and the waves were building. Capt. Crowe said seas were about three to four feet when he left the dock, but quickly increased to five feet, even six feet occasionally.

While Saturday started off as a beautiful day, a cold front came through from the north and winds picked up from the east in the early evening, according to Melissa Dispigna, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Upton. A small craft advisory was in effect at the time, with seas of 4 to 7 feet in that part of the Sound. Sustained winds of 20 to 25 mph were reported in the area, with gusts of 30 to 35 mph, she said.

The ferry captain took a couple of initial passes. He said he was apprehensive at first because he was unsure of the type of boat. Had it been a sailboat, the rigging and lines could have gotten tangled the ferry’s propellers. But it turned out to be a power boat, so he could get close.

As the ferry moved in, Capt. Crowe said, Mr. DiStefano “didn’t want to let go and I don’t blame him. He had to be sure he could move from his perch.

“He was relatively calm. There were a lot of ‘Thank Gods’ and ‘I can’t believe you guys got here’ and a lot of that. He wasn’t hysterical,” the captain recalled. “I’ve got to hand it to him for staying calm.”

The Plum Island Ferry crew that helped rescue the boaters Saturday were (from left) Caroline Clements, Nicholas Galiano, Capt. John Crowe and Josh Hubbard. Orient Fire Department personnel also assisted in pulling one of the boaters to safety. (Credit: ASRC Federal Field Services/Visual Information Service)

Mr. DiStefano quickly told rescuers that his companions had drifted away from the boat. The captain and his crew began searching the choppy waters.

“Time was getting to be precious because it was 7 by that time — just about getting dusk,” Capt. Crowe said.
They spotted another man floating in the water about 100 to 150 yards away, something the captain called “pretty miraculous” given the rough conditions.

That man, identified by police as Patrick Brinker, 50, had a life preserver under one arm and a life ring under the other, but was not wearing either. Capt. Crowe said he thinks the preservers were child-size.

Capt. Crowe said Mr. Brinker was already showing signs of hypothermia. Water temperatures were in the low 40s. The flotation devices were about to slip off his arms, he said, and he “was just barely hanging on.”

Maneuvering such a big boat to fish out someone who could not help themselves presented a challenge. “The wind was blowing us quite a bit around by that time. At one point, I was afraid I was going to run him over,” the captain said.

The ferry has an emergency ladder for such an operation. It connects to the side of the boat and has a three-by-three-foot platform at the bottom that folds down to the water line. Once it is deployed, the ferry can’t move much. The deck crew must wait until the boat is alongside the victim before deploying. The crew must also signal the captain, who has no clear line of sight.

“We don’t have a lot of room for error,” Capt. Crowe said. “He’s got to be within four to five feet to grab him.

“My crew was absolutely heroic. They were hanging off the side of the boat and down on the emergency platform to get this guy in. They finally rolled him onto the emergency platform.”

Mr. Brinker couldn’t move; he was too weak from the cold water, Capt. Crowe said.

“We lowered the sling on him and hoisted him onto the deck,” he said.

They then began searching for the third boater, 36-year-old Michael Cigna, unaware that members of the Orient Fire Department had already gotten to him.

Just as the J.J. Callis had gotten underway, Orient firefighters launched a 13-foot Achilles inflatable from the beach. It is small boat to be going out into rough seas, but it was all they had — their larger boats aren’t in the water yet.

Once police had determined the boaters weren’t in Greenport, but likely in Orient — based on information they gathered from Mr. DiStefano — they dispatched the Orient Fire Department. Fourteen members responded, some heading to Orient Point with binoculars. Two members spotted Mr. DiStefano gripping the bow and saw Mr. Cigna drifting away. They could not see Mr. Brinker.

Their job was to keep a visual while others worked to get the Achilles in the water. The department keeps the inflatable on a trailer, but had to hitch it to a truck and get into the water.

“We had two guys go in the boat, but it’s a whole team effort,” Fire Chief Bill Wysocki said.

Everyone was moving quickly. “It was 20 of 7. It’s going to get dark at 7:30. If you don’t find them by dark, their chances go down,” Chief Wysocki said.

Rich Gillooly, second assistant chief and an emergency medical technician, and Angel Medina, a lieutenant and three-year department member, jumped in the boat with two younger members. With Mr. Gillooly in charge, they headed in Mr. Cigna’s direction.

“When we first got out onto the water, we couldn’t see him,” Mr. Medina recalled. “We got out a little further, we saw him waving an oar.”

While police had described the man as being on a cushion, rescuers said he was in an eight-foot rubber raft. It blew away once the man was pulled onto the fire department’s boat.

“He did like a seal getting on,” Mr. Gillooly recalled. “Angel grabbed him by the jacket and rolled him in. And thank God we did have that boat, because it was low enough to scoop him up.”

The ride back to shore was worse than the ride out, Mr. Medina said. He knelt down over Mr. Cigna and held his head to prevent him from bumping it on the boat and also tried to use his own body heat to keep him warm.

Doug Gray, a firefighter on shore when the men arrived, said they were all shivering. “One guy was shivering like an animal on National Geographic,” he said. “He was really violently shivering.”

Mr. Medina hurt his knee on the ride in. He was taken to Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport along with the three rescued men, who were treated for hypothermia but otherwise uninjured, according to police. None of the victims could be reached for comment by presstime.

Two ambulances from Greenport Fire Department responded, along with Orient’s ambulance and one from Southold, to transport the four men.

The captain, Capt. Crowe, who has 40 years’ experience, including work on tugboats in Alaska, and the Orient firefighters agreed that the conditions under which they pulled off the rescue were nothing short of scary.

Mr. Gillooly said it he realized the gravity of the situation when he reached Mr. Cigna. “It hit me that our boat wasn’t much bigger than the raft he was on and we better head straight in.”

Rescues in that area are not uncommon.

“Plum Gut has a reputation,” Capt. Crowe said, especially when the wind and the current are opposing each other.

“When you get down to the Gut, where the Sound and the bay come together, it’s really rough,” Chief Wysocki added. “On a beautiful day, it’s still rough there. It’s not the first rescue we’ve had there — and it won’t be the last.”