Greg Antolini was floating for about 90 minutes in the chilly and choppy waters of the Fire Island Inlet in November after his motorboat flipped when he realized his end could be near.
Wearing a life jacket in Inlet waters that typically dip into the mid-50s that time of year, the 55-year-old Babylon man's body temperature was falling fast, with only about an hour of sunlight left.
“I was done. It was over,” he recalled Monday at a news conference at Suffolk County Police headquarters in Yaphank. “I thought about the fact I was never going to see my kids again.”
But thanks to a lucky break — a Suffolk police officer on the beach checking a report of a loose buoy — and the quick action of Suffolk marine and aviation police, Antolini soon had a savior overhead.
“When I saw the helicopter, I started freaking out and started waving,” he said. He waved so hard, Antolini said, the orange life jacket came off.
Nearly three months later, he found himself at the news conference alongside the men who saved him with little time to spare.
"I can’t thank these guys enough,” he said. “I’m not here today without them.”
Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart agreed.
“Today we are here to celebrate a happy ending,” she said before turning to the half-dozen officers on hand who were involved in the rescue.
“I believe your skills are what saved Greg Antolini’s life,” Hart said.
Before his motorboat capsized Nov. 13, the Inlet waters were rough, but not the worst he'd seen, Antolini said.
Besides, he said, fishing season was coming to an end, the striped bass were running, and he wanted one.
Since childhood, Antolini said, he has fished the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. But once he got his 25-foot Everglade to the Inlet, conditions turned out to be treacherous. The ocean waves were 10 feet high, the Inlet unforgiving.
“When you’re driving the boat, you got to play the waves,” he said. “And I didn’t play it well enough.”
Antolini said his boat capsized slowly enough that he had time to “dive into the water, ‘cause I knew what was coming. There was no way to stop it."
Alone in the water and with scant hope of rescue, Antolini thought he was going to die.
"My first reaction when I went in the water was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to drown in the Fire Island Inlet.’ I just couldn’t believe it,” he said.
When the boat flipped, it “spit out” a life jacket that he grabbed, he said.
“I just remember seagulls everywhere," Antolini said. "All I kept thinking was, ‘I’m in the middle of a school of fish. What the hell is going on?’ ”
Antolini knew his family and friends wouldn't notice he hadn't returned until after dark.
“By 4:30, if I am still alive, with the way the tide is ripping, nobody is ever going to find me," he recalled thinking. "They are not going to find a bobbing head in the waves.”
On an Inlet beach, Officer Erik Johnson of the Suffolk police marine bureau, had been searching for the buoy when he noticed something else.
“When I was looking out I actually saw what I thought maybe was a whale,” he said. “As I looked closer I could see it was the outline of a boat, with the outdrive coming up out of the water.”
Johnson called for the department’s aviation unit, which soon flew in and spotted Antolini, thanks largely to the orange life jacket. A Marine Bureau boat soon arrived and plucked him from the Inlet.
"We pulled up on Greg and . . . we had him in the boat within thirty seconds,” said Sgt. John Vahey of the Marine Bureau.
Antolini said he “was never cold until they pulled me out and put me on the boat.” Then, he said, “I was teeth-chattering cold.”
Treated at a nearby Coast Guard station, he showed signs of hypothermia. Police rushed him to Stony Brook University Hospital for treatment but two days later, Antolini said, he was fully recovered.
“My four kids get to see me everyday because of it,” he said of his rescuers' effort as his eyes filled with tears. The police, he said, “went over and above.”