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Fisherman's widow urges number for water emergencies

Stephanie Stellaccio talks about her husband Salvatore Stellaccio,

Stephanie Stellaccio talks about her husband Salvatore Stellaccio, who drowned in 2008, during a hearing at the Nassau Legislature in Mineola/ (July 19, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

Stephanie Stellaccio wants to make sure that something positive comes out of her husband's 2008 drowning.

Monday, the East Norwich widow of a boating enthusiast and passionate fisherman stood before the dais at the Nassau County Legislature and made an emotional appeal for the designation of a three-digit phone number exclusively for reporting water emergencies. "My idea is to create something positive from a tragedy that occurred," she said.

Under her plan, anyone spotting a swimmer or boater in distress would no longer dial 911 but 767, which on a phone touch pad spells out S.O.S., the traditional maritime distress call. The alert would then be relayed to every local, state and federal marine safety agency with a boat, from the Coast Guard to community fire departments, who would then coordinate as they got under way.

"My husband's death could have been prevented if the 911 call was relayed to marine emergency services that night," Stellaccio said. "There were three emergency boats sitting only feet from where he drowned."

Salvatore Stellaccio, 56, drowned Nov. 25, 2008, after taking his dinghy out from the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park boat basin in Oyster Bay in the late afternoon to check on his fishing boat because it had rained the night before.

Police said a girl thought she heard screams for help, went home and told her mother, who called police. Two officers drove to the park and saw nothing amiss.

Stephanie Stellaccio, a sales representative, went to the park later, saw his car and called a town safety officer.

The town communications center notified the Coast Guard, county police Marine Bureau and town harbormaster, all of whom scoured the water for her husband. But no one called the Atlantic Steamer Fire Company No. 1, which had a rescue boat docked at the basin.

The body of Stellaccio, who wasn't wearing a life jacket, was found the next day.

Stellaccio contends her husband might have survived if rescue boats had been dispatched as soon as a 911 call was received.

Stellaccio's plan, which she outlined last month for the Suffolk County Legislature, is receiving mixed reviews. Some say it couldn't hurt. Others question the cost and efficiency of having a second distress system.

Nassau Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), Suffolk Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) and Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) were moved by Stellaccio's story and have promised to investigate the 767 idea and push for action to improve emergency communications.

Former Atlantic Steamer chief Robert Bagan said he supported the 767 plan because the current system is "sometimes sketchy on us being called."

James Callahan, Nassau commissioner of emergency management, said a 767 system would duplicate the 911 call system and create confusion. County Executive Edward Mangano said "the 911 system is currently being improved and the call center capacity is being doubled. We will look at every possible avenue to provide rapid response to any and all emergencies."

Larry Weiss, a spokesman for the New York State United States Power Squadrons, a boating safety organization, said boaters should use a VHF radio for emergency calls because it can reach marine safety agencies as well as other boaters. For those without radios, he said it's better to go through 911 than create a 767 system.

"But 911 needs to know how to deal with water emergencies," Weiss said.

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