Caden Luca, 5, son of Patrick Luca, is wearing the...

Caden Luca, 5, son of Patrick Luca, is wearing the same life jacket that saved his life. He attended the event with his mom Stephanie Luca and sister Brea Luca. (May 19, 2012) Credit: Jim Staubitser

Stephanie Luca wants others to know the importance of wearing life vests. Her family was forever changed, because her husband, NYPD officer Patrick Luca, wasn't wearing one.

"If he had put it on, he would still be here," Stephanie Luca said Saturday, as she, her son Caden, 5, and daughter Brea, 2, stopped at an event in Patchogue to encourage boaters to wear life vests.

Caden and Patrick Luca, who was 41, had gone kayaking last Aug. 12 in Smithtown Bay, when they ended up in the water. Caden, who was wearing a life vest, was found safe floating on the water by a passing boater. Patrick Luca's body was found the next day, three-quarters of a mile from shore.

"Every day is hard," said Stephanie Luca, 38, of Smithtown. "Every day is an adjustment. I don't want to say we never have fun, but it's hard."

Caden, who told rescuers that his father told him he was "going to heaven" before slipping beneath the water, is doing well in kindergarten, she said. He's learning how to play baseball. "But he's doing it without a father," she said.

Stephanie Luca said she doesn't know why her husband wasn't wearing a life jacket that day. He always did. Caden, who is in therapy, hasn't shed light on it.

Speaking about the accident is still difficult, said Stephanie Luca, who remained composed as she spoke with a reporter, as volunteers from the Coast Guard Auxiliary demonstrated how to wear life jackets to passersby outside a boating supply store.

Still, she wanted to show her support, said Luca, who is pushing for a state law requiring anyone on a watercraft smaller than 21 feet to wear life jackets at all times. "Anything I can do so this doesn't happen to another family," she said.

Nearby, Fred Furnell, a Coast Guard auxiliary volunteer, told passersby that there were 533 recreational boating drownings nationwide last year. In 415 of those cases, the victims were not wearing life jackets, he told one man. "Life jackets are like seat belts," he said. "When you need one if you have an accident, it's too late [to put one on]."

As part of the "Ready, Set, Wear It" event, organized by The National Safe Boating Council and other marine organizations, people were encouraged to try to set a record for donning life jackets around the world. At Patchogue, 41 people, including the Lucas family, put on jackets as part of the effort.

Caden put the message simply, when asked why it's important to wear life vests. "Because you can drown," he said.

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