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Kayaker's wife: Dad made sure son survived

Caden Luca, 5, shows off his medal in

Caden Luca, 5, shows off his medal in his Smithtown home. (Oct. 25, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

The widow of a New York police officer who died in a kayaking accident on Smithtown Bay in August said her husband used his final moments to instruct their 5-year-old son on how to survive.

"He told him 'Daddy is going to go under the water. . . . Then he told him to blow his whistle," Stephanie Luca said, tears streaming down her face. "He told him he [Daddy] was going to heaven."

Speaking for the first time since the tragedy, the Smithtown mom said their son Caden's rescuers described to her the boy's account of their desperate struggle.

About half an hour after father and son ended up in the water, a passing boater found Caden floating on the surface in his lifejacket, cold but safe. The next day, searchers located the body of Patrick Luca, a 21-year veteran of the New York Police Department, three-quarters of a mile from shore.

For Stephanie, 37, the shock of losing her husband has given way to a cause: Patrick's Law. She is campaigning to require anyone on a watercraft smaller than 21 feet to wear life jackets at all times -- a law she believes would have saved Patrick and she hopes could save others.

"Had he had a life vest on, you would not be sitting here talking to me," Stephanie said as she sat in her living room with her 2-year-old daughter, Brea, on her lap. "She would have a dad. I would have had a husband."

Patrick, 41, was a good swimmer. On Aug. 12, when he took Caden kayaking, he put a lifejacket on the boy equipped with an emergency light and a whistle. He did not wear one himself.

Stephanie recalled how police came to her home to tell her that there had been an accident involving her husband and son, and that they were trying to locate Patrick. She rushed upstairs to change clothes, glanced at the TV and saw a news report. When she saw Caden on the screen in an ambulance, her heart dropped.

Stephanie said Caden's first words when they reunited were, "Daddy died, Mommy, and he's gone to heaven," but the little boy has not mentioned the accident since. Investigators told her what they think happened.

"The seats on the kayak were flotation devices and his [Patrick's] was gone so they know he pulled it out," she said. "He jumped in with it but -- investigators think -- he couldn't get fast enough to Caden so he let it go."

Suffolk police are still awaiting a medical examiner's report before closing their investigation, Lt. Gerard Pelkofsky said.

Sept. 25 would have been the Lucas' seventh anniversary. That day, with the help of Smithtown officials, Stephanie put up a sign on the bluffs at Kings Park, her husband's kayak-launching spot. It reads: "Life jackets save lives. Think of your safety and your family," and concludes, "Sign installed in memory of Patrick Luca."

New York State law requires children younger than 12 to wear a lifejacket while on board any vessel 65 feet long or shorter.

A 2009 law that requires others on recreational watercraft less than 21 feet long to wear a personal flotation device while under way refers only to the colder months -- from Nov. 1 to May 1. The law covers motorboats, canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats. Violation of the law could result in fines of up to $100.

Stephanie Luca is planning a petition drive for Patrick's Law.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who co-sponsored the 2009 law, said he is supporting the public-awareness campaign, but isn't certain whether a law can easily passed. "I would be remiss if I told you this would be an easy thing to do," he said.

Ron Sarver, deputy director of the Kentucky-based National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, said wearing life jackets is "the No. 1 thing that somebody could do to save their lives."

Sarver cited Coast Guard statistics that nearly three-quarters of all boating accident fatalities drowned, and of those, 88 percent did not wear life vests. Last year, of 141 deaths involving canoes and kayaks, 128 were drownings, Sarver said.

Next to the staircase near the entrance of the Luca house are pictures of Patrick and Stephanie with their children. A table lamp holds a red rosary and a black Harley-Davidson baseball cap that says Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Patrick got the cap on their honeymoon. He wore it the day he went out kayaking with Caden, and handed it to his son before he went under. Caden held it in a "vise grip," she said.

Caden is going to kindergarten now and shows no outward effects from the tragedy. When asked whether he wants to be a police officer like his dad, he smiled and said, "I'm going to be a Yankee."

"What are you going to get Mommy?" Stephanie asked him.

"A tiger!" he said.

"No -- a Jaguar!" she corrected him.

Taking care of the children and her advocacy work keeps Stephanie busy.

"I have no choice, I have two children and at this point, I need to move forward, and in order to do that I need a cause," she said. "It helps."

But 4:30 p.m. is tough on her every day: That's the time Patrick came home.

"We were a tag team. Now it's just all me. It's all gone now. A very important piece of my family is gone," she said.

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