Police boats search for a capsized vessel about 1/4 mile...

Police boats search for a capsized vessel about 1/4 mile west of Lloyd Neck in Cold Spring Harbor. Police say three children died after the cabin cruiser, returning from a fireworks display, capsized. (July 5, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Investigators were Thursday trying to determine what led up to the moment when chaos erupted aboard a 34-foot cabin cruiser that capsized, spilling 27 people into the waters off Oyster Bay and killing three children.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Nassau police indicated Thursday that the main focus of their investigation was whether the boat was overcrowded at a time when vessels of all kinds were departing the area after a July Fourth fireworks show.

Officials said they are trying to determine if wakes from other boats, stormy weather or mechanical failure also played a role in the 10 p.m. tragedy Wednesday.

Nassau Police Dep. Insp. Kenneth Lack said early yesterday that preliminary indications were the cabin cruiser capsized off Lloyd Neck after being hit by the wake of another boat, an account supported by eyewitnesses who picked up many of those thrown into the water.

"The boat could have sunk for many reasons," said Det. Lt. John Azzata, chief of the Nassau police homicide squad.

Survivors recounted scenes of chaos as they clung to the craft that they were riding on seconds before.

"A wake got us and it turned the boat around. It just turned the boat," a teary-eyed Sal Aureliano, who identified himself as the pilot, told News 12 Long Island. "I didn't see it. It was dark. It just happened."

He added: "I didn't think a 34-footer would turn. It just bellied up. . . . The next thing I know . . . everybody was in the water. Chaos."

Twenty-seven family members and friends were heading back to Huntington Harbor when the 1984 Silverton cabin cruiser capsized, officials and family members said.

'Lost three great kids'

Police identified the victims as Suffolk County residents David Aureliano, 12, Harlie Treanor, 11, and Victoria Gaines, 8.

People on the boat said the entire incident took place in seconds.

"We lost three great kids," Sal Aureliano, who is David's uncle, told Newsday. "It's painful. It's the worst day of my life."

He called David "an amazing kid."

Holiday turned to horror

Candi Treanor, of Huntington Station, the aunt of Harlie and David, said Wednesday had been a beautiful evening of watching fireworks that suddenly turned to horror. "I was trying to pull them out," Treanor said. "They were just beautiful, young and loving children."

The three children were found in the boat's cabin, officials said.

All three were pronounced dead about 4 a.m., officials said.

Jim Oliva, 47, spent yesterday with the families.

"This is a tragedy you can't even imagine," Oliva said. "It's a family's worst nightmare."

The boat capsized southwest of a popular anchorage known as the Sand Hole, at the entrance to Oyster Bay just south of where it meets Long Island Sound, officials said.

The others in the boat were saved by private vessels and emergency agencies and taken to Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club on Centre Island or Theodore Roosevelt Park in Oyster Bay, police said. Most were then taken to hospitals, where they were treated and released, Azzata said.

The boat, which is based at the Harbor Boating Club, was operated by two people at various times during the evening, officials said. Azzata said there is no indication either was drinking alcohol. Police did not immediately identify either operator.

Aureliano said the boat is owned by his brother-in-law, but that he was driving it because he was more experienced. Boating records show that the Silverton was bought by Kevin Treanor in April 2011. Both Aureliano and Treanor, who lives in Huntington Station, are members of the boating club.

Manhattan-based attorney James Mercante said he has been hired by Treanor's insurance company to represent him.

A look at safety

Some safety experts said carrying 27 people aboard the boat was dangerous, while others said it might safely accommodate that many under optimum circumstances.

The U.S. Coast Guard does not establish passenger capacity limits for pleasure boats longer than 20 feet, leaving it up to the operators.

Officials said a thunderstorm was approaching as the fireworks show ended. The storm did not reach the harbor until after the boat had capsized, witnesses said.

Azzata and Jeffrey Moberly, boatswain's mate second class, of the Coast Guard's Eatons Neck Station, said investigators also are looking into whether there were enough life jackets on board for the passengers.

According to New York State boating laws, one Coast Guard-approved life jacket must be available for each passenger on every vessel, including canoes, kayaks and rowboats.

Children on board younger than 12 must wear a life jacket, unless they are in a totally enclosed cabin.

According to police, the victims said they were in Oyster Bay to see the fireworks display put on by the Dolans. The Dolan family owns a controlling interest in Cablevision, which owns Newsday and News 12 Long Island.

Almost a thousand boats had been in Oyster Bay during the fireworks show, officials said.

Walter Zalak, 46, of Huntington, a member of Harbor Boating Club for six years, said, "The Fourth of July in general is ugly. It's just chaos. Everyone and their mother goes out [on the waters]."

Azzata said the boat capsized in water 21 feet deep and then drifted more than a half mile before sinking in water 65 to 70 feet deep.

Thursday, Nassau Marine Bureau officers were stationed at the site as officials made plans to raise the boat to seek other evidence.

Nassau doesn't have salvage capacity, and Azzata said the department would seek the Coast Guard's assistance or turn to a private salvage company.

An examination could show if there was an equipment failure such as a through-hull valve that could have allowed water into the boat and affected its stability, officials said.

Aureliano said Thursday that "there was nothing wrong with the boat. . . . It just hit a wave, but I didn't see it. It just came, it just turned us over, upside down."

Boating safety questions

Wednesday's capsizing of a 34-foot cabin cruiser in Oyster Bay raises questions about whether three key safety guidelines were violated by the operator and other boaters, according to Larry Weiss, Long Island spokesman for United States Power Squadrons maritime safety organization.

"A prudent skipper does not overload his boat," he said. The Silverton 34 Convertible had 27 people on it, which Weiss says was too many people for the conditions -- a forecast of thunderstorms and the likelihood of heavy boating traffic that would create large wakes and choppy waters.

"You remain always conscious of the weather," Weiss said. "Everybody knew the storm was coming and was scrambling to get back to their home ports before the storm hit," he said. That may have led the operator to travel faster than was prudent with his high passenger count, Weiss said.

"You are responsible for your wake," Weiss said, and any damage it causes so if another large boat traveled near the Silverton and caused it to flip with its wake, that operator would be responsible if he could be identified.