NEW YORK (AP) — Buoys to aid navigation in a twisting channel where a speedboat ran aground were either missing, damaged or out of position the night of the crash that killed three people and critically injured four, an attorney for the boat's captain said Thursday.

The attorney, James Mercante, disputed police allegations that either alcohol or speed played roles in the accident that killed pilot George Canni, 65, his wife and a friend.

"Without the buoys to navigate at night, you have no way of determining if you are in the channel or out of the channel," said Mercante, an attorney for Canni's insurance company.

He added that Canni was an experienced mariner who had owned or operated boats for more than 20 years and that his blood-alcohol level was at the minimum threshold for boating while intoxicated.

Police have said that Canni was legally drunk and driving at "excessive speed" when he crashed the boat Oct. 4.

But Mercante said data he obtained from the U.S. Coast Guard indicated that two buoys were off station, two others were missing and a third was damaged the night Canni's 40-foot speedboat, carrying his wife and a group of friends, traversed the Great Island channel and ran aground on Goose Island, south of Massapequa.

"At night when you're operating on a boat, you rely almost exclusively on buoys to guide the mariner," said Mercante, a longtime maritime attorney and retired naval reserve captain. "When the buoys are missing or off station it becomes a perilous trap for the mariner."

Ron Masters, commissioner of Conservation and Waterways for the Town of Hempstead, which maintains about 300 buoys in the area, said none of the buoys were off-station.

"The day after the accident, my team went out there on my instructions, and they reported back to me that they were on-station," he said.

The buoys are owned by the Town of Hempstead. A spokesman for the town did not immediately return a phone message Thursday requesting comment.

Mercante also disputed police allegations that Canni's boat was going too fast.

"There's no speed limit in that area," he said. "Whatever speed he was doing, he was in his rights to be doing it."

He said it was unlikely that the boat could go more than 40 mph.

The Nassau County Police Department, which is investigating the boat accident, said that it would make no comment beyond repeating its announcement on Wednesday that Canni had a blood-alcohol level content of 0.08.

The department has also requested toxicology tests to determine whether Canni had drugs or other substances in him at the time of the accident.

Capt. Alan Bregman, who mans a marine-assistance boat off Long Island's South Shore in the area where the accident happened, said it's possible that at least one buoy is in the wrong spot and two others are missing in the channel.

He said the buoys were small and unlit, designed to be taken out easily each year. If they had been missing from the channel on Oct. 4, he said "it would definitely make things more difficult" for boaters. But he emphasized that "driving drunk is never a good idea."

Alcohol was the leading factor in fatal boating accidents nationally last year, according to a recreational boating report by the U.S. Coast Guard. Of the 276 accidents involving alcohol use, 124 of them were fatal. There were a total of 4,789 accidents involving 790 deaths in 2008. Alcohol was also a primary contributing factory in injuries, according to the report.

Also killed in the speedboat accident on Oct. 4, were Canni's wife, Theresa Maniaci-Canni, 46, and Joseph Sugamele, 50. Survivors were Peter Sofia, 54, of Farmingdale; Tom Sulori, 48; Sulori's wife, Laura, 54, of Massepequa; and Sugamele's wife, Deborah, 50. They remain hospitalized at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow.

George Canni, of Copiague, was the owner of an auto repair shop in Baldwin, N.Y., where a man who answered the phone on Thursday identified himself as a nephew. "I have nothing to tell you," the man said, refusing to give his name.

Peter Sofia's 84-year-old mother, Rose Sofia, said that her son was still in the hospital with broken legs. She said he might be coming home in the next few days, and that she had few details about the accident.

She said she had seen Canni at holiday dinners.

"He's a very responsible person," she said. "He's very nice, and caring."

Latest videos