By Cristian Salazar, Associated Press Writer
The Copiague man was drunk and piloting a powerboat at “excessive speed” as he navigated a twisting channel at night before plowing into marshland, killing three people and critically injuring four others, Nassau police said on Wednesday.
But an attorney for George Canni’s insurance company on Thursday disputed that alcohol played a role in the accident that killed Canni, 65, his wife and a friend. The attorney, James Mercante, said that buoys that were supposed to mark the channel were either missing, damaged or off station — meaning they were not moored in the correct position.
“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, adding that Canni was an experienced mariner who had owned or operated boats for more than 20 years.
Mercante said his chart indicated that two buoys were off station, two others were missing and a third was damaged on Oct. 4 when Canni’s speedboat, carrying his wife and a group of friends, traversed the Great Island channel and ran aground on Goose Island, south of Seaford.
“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.”
The buoys are owned by the Town of Hempstead. A spokesman for the town did not immediately return a phone message Thursday requesting comment.
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 minimum threshold for boating while intoxicated.
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 the night of the crash, 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 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 was the owner of an auto repair shop in Baldwin, 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.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.