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No charges in fatal Oyster Bay boating accident

FBI and local authorities recover the Kandi Won, the cabin cruiser that sank July Fourth killing three children in Oyster Bay. Videojournalists: Jim Staubitser, Kevin P. Coughlin and News 12 (July 11, 2012)

The Nassau County district attorney's office has ruled out criminal charges in the Oyster Bay boating accident last July Fourth that killed three children.

John Byrne, spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, said a county police investigation uncovered a "unique combination of circumstances" that led to the capsizing of the 34-foot cabin cruiser.

A report on the accident and recommendations will be issued later, Byrne said Thursday.

While no evidence of criminal wrongdoing was found, the investigation uncovered "gaping holes in the maritime regulatory system and contributory design flaws in the vessel," according to Byrne, who declined to elaborate.

Preliminary findings had the vessel meeting basic safety standards, including the number of life jackets.

But investigators have since determined that the vessel's design made it unstable in certain conditions, a source familiar with the probe said Thursday.

The 1984 Silverton cruiser, Kandi Won, had 27 people onboard, at least 10 of them children, when it capsized and sank about 10 p.m. near the mouth of Oyster Bay. The boat was heading back to Huntington after a fireworks display.

The operator of the boat, Sal Aureliano, said the vessel was struck by a large wake that he couldn't see in the dark.

Aureliano said last summer that he saw lightning shortly before the accident, but the National Weather Service said a thunderstorm moved through the area later that night and winds never exceeded 10 to 15 mph.

Three children trapped in the cabin when the boat capsized died: cousins David Aureliano, 12, and Harlie Treanor, 11; and family friend Victoria Gaines, 7.

Victoria's father, Paul Gaines of Huntington, said he hopes the final report sheds more light on the accident.

"There were dangerous conditions on the water that night, and I'm committed to finding out where the responsibilities lie," he said. "No matter what the report says, it is clear that boating safety laws, rules and regulations need to be examined and some changed."

Gaines said he has been working with federal and state officials to draft legislation that improves maritime safety.

Kevin Treanor of Huntington, the owner of the boat who lost his daughter in the accident, was relieved to hear that there would be no charges filed, according to his attorney, James Mercante of Manhattan.

But "his only solace in today's news is that he can continue to grieve somewhat in peace with his family," Mercante said. "The memory of that tragic accident . . . will never be erased."

Mercante has insisted that Kandi Won was not dangerously overloaded, pinning the cause of the tragedy on the surprise wake.

The attorney for Aureliano, Anthony La Pinta of Hauppauge, said, "Thankfully, the families involved in this terrible tragedy will now be able to move forward and hopefully piece their lives back together."

La Pinta said he anticipates civil lawsuits will be filed in the case, however.

Boating safety experts have said that although the cabin cruiser was severely overloaded, the vessel has no federal, industry or manufacturer's occupancy limits. A recent study by a Maine marine-design academy determined the maximum safe capacity of such a boat is 16 people.

The Coast Guard currently only sets maximum occupancy limits for boats 20 feet or smaller, and an industry group only rates those that are 26 feet or smaller. The Gaines family and others are pushing to require the Coast Guard to set limits for larger boats.

The accident has spurred proposed legislation in Albany and Washington that would require all operators to take a safety course and mandate occupancy limits for recreational boats larger than 20 feet.

Suffolk County approved a law last year that requires boat operators to take a safety course. It takes effect in November.

The aftermath

July 4, 2012. A 34-foot cabin cruiser capsizes, spilling 24 people into waters off Oyster Bay and killing three children trapped in the cabin. 

July 11. The cabin cruiser is lifted from the bottom of Oyster Bay.

Aug. 7. The boat that capsized appears on preliminary inspection to have been mechanically and structurally sound, a source with knowledge of the investigation said. There also were enough life jackets on board for all the passengers, the source said.

Sept. 12. Sen. Charles Schumer introduces a bill that would require the U.S. Coast Guard to mandate that recreational boats longer than 20 feet have capacity limits, and that the limits are posted visibly onboard. The bill is still pending.

Sept. 13. The Suffolk County Legislature unanimously passes a bill requiring county boaters to take a safety course, or risk hefty fines and even jail time.

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