LI family notified of son's death - but he's alive
Geri Esposito dropped to the floor when two Suffolk County police officers arrived at her door Saturday morning to say her son was dead.
It was Freddy, the youngest, killed in a car wreck in Pennsylvania.
"In my mind, it was pandemonium," she said of the anguished minutes after she was told the news.
A call by Esposito's husband, Alfred, to a Pennsylvania state trooper brought details of a high-speed crash on Interstate 80. The car their son had been driving had slammed into a tractor-trailer, killing him and a Stony Brook University student, and severely injuring another, the trooper said.
The grieving couple clung to each other as calls went out to loved ones. A relative was sent to Kings Park to inform Freddy Esposito's 82-year-old grandmother of his death.
Then, suddenly, their son was on the telephone, very much alive.
It had all been a mistake.
"I couldn't think," Geri Esposito said after hearing his voice on the telephone. "I didn't really believe it . . . and I wasn't going to believe it until I saw him."
The confusion began after midnight Saturday when a Nissan Altima carrying three Stony Brook students slammed into a tractor-trailer. After reaching the scene, a Pennsylvania state trooper found a New York driver's license bearing the name and photo of Alfred "Freddy" Esposito III, 26, in the hands of one of the dead, according to troopers. A fireman at the scene provided the trooper with another ID, this one found with Sean Finnegan, 21, of Lynbrook, who was also killed. Stanislav Gomberg, 21, of Ossining, was injured.
Based on those IDs, messages went to local police departments, asking for families to be notified. Two Suffolk police officers arrived at the Espositos' Mastic Beach home around 9 a.m. It was another 90 minutes before they learned their son was alive, and in his Bay Shore home.
It was Chris Esposito, an NYPD officer, who rushed home from work to find his younger brother asleep on the couch in the house they share, and then called his father to let him know Freddy was still alive.
"I guess I was in denial or something, because I was sure he was dead, but I thought I'd go downstairs and see if he was there," Chris said.
In a darkened basement, he said, "I thought it was a pillow on the couch. I touched it and he sits up. I said, 'You're dead.' I thought it was a ghost. I thought I was hallucinating."
This week, family members say they feel relieved and sad, and a little angry. They questioned why Pennsylvania troopers did not do more to identify the young man killed in the crash.
"At first I was just upset, but now I'm a little angry, too. You get the feeling they did half a job," Chris Esposito said.
Capt. James Murtin, commanding officer of Pennsylvania State Police's Troop N, acknowledged the mistaken identification and expressed regret for the error. He said the notification was based on Esposito's license as well as a "general match" with the deceased, who was later identified as Paul Richards, 18, of Santa Cruz, Calif.
The trooper "went with the evidence he had at the scene, and in the interest of notifying a family member as quickly as possible," he said. "It is highly unfortunate for both the officer and the Esposito family."
Geri and Alfred Esposito said their son - who did not respond to interview requests for this story - told them he didn't know why his one-time fraternity brother had a duplicate of his license.
The family praised Suffolk officers, who they said were compassionate in relating the news and quickly returned after learning of the mistake.
"We went back to the family and apologized," said Insp. David Ferrara, commanding officer of the Seventh Precinct.
Alfred Esposito Jr. said at first he'd been willing to accept it as a mistake by troopers. But on Monday, he felt a rising anger. That's because authorities on Monday identified Finnegan as the driver rather than Richards, the man they had believed was Esposito.
"What else did they get wrong?" he asked.
By Wednesday, he said he realized how lucky he was. "I vacillate between being overjoyed and being overcome with grief, like it really happened, but then I say, 'Stop it,' " he said. "I have my son."