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Navigation buoys at issue in boat crash off Seaford

The Uncanni, seen here in a Sept. 1,

The Uncanni, seen here in a Sept. 1, 2008, photo, is the boat that crashed off Seaford on Sunday night, Oct. 4, 2009. Three people onboard died. Credit: / Gail O'Brien

As darkness fell Oct. 4, George Canni steered his high-performance Hustler speedboat up the winding Great Island Channel south of Seaford as his friend Joseph Sugamele trained a spotlight looking for navigation buoys marking the way.

As the boat skimmed across the water at anywhere from 35 mph to 60 mph, Sugamele asked Canni if he could see the buoys in the dark. Canni answered that he knew where he was going - but seconds later, the boat crashed up on Goose Island, ejected all aboard onto the marsh and rolled over. Passenger Peter Sophia flew through the air, landed feet-first in the mud and heard both his legs fracture.

Those are among the new details that have emerged in the final Nassau police report about Long Island's worst boating accident in several years, a crash that killed Canni, 65, his wife, Theresa, and Sugamele, and seriously injured the other four passengers.


Focus on police report

The police report concludes the accident occurred as a result of George Canni's driving the boat while intoxicated at an unsafe speed, and by his failure to use a radar system stowed aboard that would have helped him guide the speedboat Uncanni through the winding channel in the darkness.

The report, along with the Nassau medical examiner's toxicology report and studies commissioned by an attorney hired by the Cannis' insurance company to represent the estate, are expected to be at the center of unfolding legal battles. Because navigation aids had been changed over the years by the Town of Hempstead but were not reflected in government charts, attorneys for the Canni estate and the survivors have filed notice that they plan to sue the town.

Hempstead spokesman Michael Deery said "our position is that we have maintained our buoys properly and have provided updated lists of their location on an ongoing basis to the Coast Guard."


Survivor lawsuits likely

Lawsuits are also anticipated by the survivors against the estate. Three weeks ago, James Mercante of the Manhattan firm of Rubin, Fiorella & Friedman, the lawyer hired by the Cannis' insurance company, filed a motion in federal district court in Central Islip seeking to have the case heard in admiralty court and limit the owner's liability to the value of the boat after the accident, $92,000. That would block a large financial verdict in any actions filed by the survivors.

Survivors made statements to police while being treated at Nassau University Medical Center the night of the crash. Their statements, never before made public, were summarized in the police report, and they suggest the following scenario on Oct. 4:

About 1 p.m., Joseph Sugamele, and his wife, Deborah, both 50, of Massapequa, went to the Cannis' Copiague home. The Cannis took the Sugameles in their boat east to Patchogue, where they visited a waterfront restaurant for brunch. Deborah Sugamele told police the group drank alcoholic beverages, but did not recall how much or what kind.

About 3 p.m. the couples left Patchogue and headed back west for Massapequa. They picked up friends Thomas, 48, and Laura Soluri, 54, who live on a canal there, between 4:30 and 5 p.m. The three couples decided to get seafood at Captain Ben's Seafood in Freeport and take it back to the Cannis' home.

About 5, the boat eventually tied up at Bracco's Clam and Oyster Bar along the Woodcleft Canal and next door to Captain Ben's. The group went to the bar for drinks, though the survivors told police Canni only had seltzer or club soda with lemon.

About 5:30 p.m., the party added its last member - Sophia, 54, of South Farmingdale. He was walking by Bracco's when he heard his friend Thomas Soluri yelling to him from the bar. Someone bought him a cocktail, and George Canni invited him for dinner.

As it was getting dark, three of the men went to Captain Ben's and purchased seven soft-shell crabs, five 1 1/2-pound lobsters and 3 pounds of shrimp. At 6:45, the group stepped down into Uncanni and cast off.

About 7 p.m., the boat passed eastbound beneath the Wantagh Parkway Bridge No. 2, which was closed for construction. Anchored nearby in a 19-foot fishing boat were John Tetenes and Steven DiBenedetto. Tetenes pegged the Hustler's speed at 50 to 60 miles an hour, but DiBenedetto thought it was more like 35 to 40. Uncanni's wake was sufficient to rip the smaller boat's anchor out of the bottom.


Speed of boat at issue

In the end, the police concluded that "the operating speed of the subject vessel at the time of occurrence is estimated at 35-40 mph." If the bridge had been open and free of construction, the speed limit is 5 mph.

In part, the police report says, authorities drew their conclusion on the boat's speed after speaking with Joseph Logiudice, owner of Hustler Boats in Calverton. Logiudice said that with the throttles at three-quarter speed and the boat's trim devices set to keep the bow down in the water - the way the boat was discovered after the accident - Uncanni was traveling at about 35 mph.

But Joseph Donahue, the Manhattan attorney representing the Soluris, said experts he has hired will "show that the boat was doing a higher rate of speed."

However fast the boat was going, Thomas Soluri told police that Canni was having difficulty navigating in the dark.

Along with velocity, attorneys say questions about navigational aids - things like buoys - will play a big role in expected courtroom fights. The police report notes that the Coast Guard surveyed the channel Oct. 22 and determined that the town's buoys and pole-mounted markers - known as daymarks - were not in positions shown on navigation charts. Two buoys were out of position, and two daymarks were missing. Mercante added that there were discrepancies about which aids were supposed to be lit.

Hempstead says it regularly communicated the positions of its buoys and daymarks to the Coast Guard. That agency said it was investigating why the information never made it to the federal department that updates navigation charts.

Despite the new details that have emerged about the case, several unanswered questions resonate from the crash of Uncanni.

First, the police report states that a spotlight mounted on the bow was operating that night, that Joseph Sugamele held another one in his hand and a global positioning system display at the helm was turned on. But the report also states that a functioning radar unit - it would have provided a more accurate view of the shoreline and the buoys, even if they are out of place - was stowed in the engine compartment.

Finally, how to reconcile survivors' statements to police that Canni did not drink anything alcoholic after his early afternoon brunch with his documented blood-alcohol level of .08, which made him legally intoxicated?

"I don't think anybody knows," said Roy Corsa, the Port Washington attorney for the Cannis' estate. "Every case ends up with mysteries and this is one for this case."

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