A mother's call and a cigarette lighter guided police to two clammers stranded on a deserted island at dawn Monday, 12 hours after their boat sank in the Great South Bay.
Paul Salentino, 36, and John Rose, 51, jumped out of their boat seconds before high winds and choppy waves flipped it over about 7 p.m. Sunday, just west of the Robert Moses Causeway. Their cellphones, wallets and catch -- everything but the clothes on their backs -- were gone with the waves.
"We got our preservers on and the waves were just really kicking," said Salentino, of Holbrook. "They were just like breaking over us and the boat. We're yelling 'Help.' There's nobody around. Not a soul in sight. It was pitch dark."
Salentino had grabbed the radio mike as the boat flipped, and he sent out distress calls: "Boat sinking. I'm going down." No one reported receiving the call.
For an hour, the clammers clung to the boat, then swam about 45 minutes through dense fog until their feet touched ground -- a marshy island called Seganus Thatch, on the western side of Captree Island.
"Thank God we were both together," Rose said. "We just kept paddling and paddling toward the island."
But no one knew they were missing -- except for Salentino's mother, Mary Buddenhagen, 61, who lives with her son.
When he failed to return by midnight, she drove to the East Islip Marina, where he set off. His car was there, Buddenhagen said, but the night watchman told her he hadn't seen them.
"I was waiting and waiting," the mother said. "I was getting a little nervous."
After the night watchman left about 2 a.m., Salentino's mother drove to the East Islip Fire Department, but found no one there to help, then returned to the marina, where she called 911.
On the small island, Salentino found a key item in his pocket -- a wet cigarette lighter.
He blew it dry, and with bits of broken up boats and debris on the island, he and Rose started a bonfire.
They could see Coast Guard and police search boats less than 2 miles away, said Rose, of Ronkonkoma. In fact, they were within 2 miles of Ocean Parkway to the south, Fire Island to the southeast and the Coast Guard station by the causeway.
"They were over by Captree looking for us and we could see the police," Rose recounted. "We saw one of the Coast Guard boats in the water, but on the Bay Shore side, going along the coast and down along the causeway."
They yelled and yelled, before the fog became so thick by 4 a.m. that they couldn't see the searchers anymore.
Suffolk marine police officers Donald Moore and Anthony Ruggiero were searching by Captree because that's where Buddenhagen had said they'd be clamming.
"It didn't sound good," Moore recalled telling his partner. "If they were both on the boat, why would both their cell phones go dead at the same time?"
Two hours into the search, the fog was so thick that the officers called it off until dawn.
"It was the proverbial needle in the haystack," said Moore, a 12-year veteran. "You have a 14-foot boat with a low profile, it's dark and you have no idea where they're going to be."
At 6:30 a.m., the two marine officers started from the marina, checked the Bay Shore and Islip shorelines, then went south.
It was a whiff of smoke that caught Ruggiero's attention several hundred yards from Seganus Thatch island, Moore said.
Moore then saw two silhouettes: "They were both in the water and waving their arms."
The arms continued waving, even after Moore flashed lights to signal they had been spotted.
They were in shorts and tank tops, the officer said, but seemed to have survived well.
"I was so relieved," said Rose, a former Navy officer.
He told his rescuers, "God bless you officers."
As the clammers told their story onboard, Moore said he marveled that they lost everything but what they needed the most. "If they came out of that with something, the lighter was the best thing for that situation."
Salentino kept saying "my boat, my boat," Moore recalled.
But Buddenhagen said she told her son what's important: "I don't care about the boat. You could always get another one. . . . You need your life."