A man was pronounced dead at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson after he was pulled from a submerged vehicle in Port Jefferson Harbor just after 7 p.m. Oct. 30, according to Suffolk County Police Department Assistant Commissioner Justin Meyers. Police have identified the man as William Whalen, 69, of Lake Grove.
“A 911 call came in at 7:10 p.m. after witnesses observed a car drive into the water at the Port Jefferson Marina boat launch located off of West Broadway Avenue and Barnum Avenue in Port Jefferson Village,” Meyers statement said. “Sixth Precinct Officers Brian Christopher and Michael Cappelli responded and jumped into the water and extricated a male victim that was trapped in his vehicle which was completely submerged. Personnel from the Port Jefferson Village Fire Department and Setauket Fire Department also responded and also went into the water to help extricate the victim.”
The officers were being treated for hypothermia in the aftermath of the incident.
Members of the Port Jefferson Fire Department — Lieutenant Geoffrey Markson, Ex-Captain David Okst and First Assistant Brennan Holmes — were on the eastern end of the marina parking lot working on the department’s fire boat when they were alerted of the incident on their paging devices, according to a spokesperson from the PJFD chief’s office. The three jumped into the water, eventually breaking the window with a hammer and removing the seatbelt to pull the victim from the car. Two PJFD Heavy Rescue Squad members in diving gear also arrived on the scene to assist in the rescue effort.
“We had a brief conversation that went, ‘are we doing this? Yeah we’re doing it,'” Holmes said during a phone interview.
He said the three firefighters were focused only on action and not on what might happen to them if they jumped in the water.
“We could have saved a life,” Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant said via email Monday night.
Garant announced during a board meeting June 5 the village had sent a letter to the New York State Department of Transportation and State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) asking for the traffic signal at the intersection of Barnum Avenue and West Broadway to be changed from having a standard green light to a green left arrow and right arrow. The call was in response to an April 6 incident in which a man in his early 60s drove into the harbor via the same boat launch. Four good Samaritans rescued that driver, and were later honored by the Port Jeff Village board in July. Garant said the DOT told her in a letter she received about five weeks ago they intended to comply with her request to change the light.
“I am thankful that the DOT was willing to entertain and adopt our suggestion, and when the light is changed, it may save a life,” Garant said Tuesday.
In December 2005 60-year-old Setauket resident Richard Levin drove into the water on the same ramp and onlookers had to pull his unconscious body from the fully submerged car. Levin died days later as a result of the incident.
According to documents obtained from Brookhaven in May, both Brookhaven Town and Port Jeff Village were sued by the wife and executrix of the estate of Richard Levin in 2007.
“As a result of the negligence of the defendants in failing to properly maintain the intersection of Route 25A and Barnum Ave., in failing to properly safeguard against motorists driving onto said Port Jefferson ramp into the water, in failing to properly illuminate said area, in failing to provide fencing and warning lights — as a result of the aforementioned Richard Levin died,” the lawsuit read in part. “[The] town failed to submit any evidence that it maintained its property in a reasonably safe condition by providing adequate fencing, lighting or warning of the dangerous condition on its property.”
“We had a brief conversation that went, ‘are we doing this? Yeah we’re doing it.'”
— Brennan Holmes
Judge Joseph Farneti of the New York State Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in January 2011 because the “acts or omissions of defendants were not the proximate cause of the alleged accident.”
The April incident stirred up memories more than a decade old for one former village resident.
“People are dying here and it’s a simple fix,” Christopher Kelsch, one of the people who witnessed Levin’s death 12 years ago and tried to help, said shortly after seeing news of the April incident. “Somebody needs to shine a serious spotlight because Dr. Levin died at that location.”
Following the April incident, a Brookhaven Town spokesperson said in a statement there are clear signs and traffic measures in place to warn residents of the ramp’s location.
“The Port Jefferson boat ramp has existed at its current location for generations,” the spokesperson said. “A number of measures are in place including a multitude of ‘Do Not Enter’ signs, road arrows and other traffic control measures to clearly indicate that this is not an entrance.”
A Brookhaven Town spokesperson directed questions to the police department Monday night. Garant called on the town to take action in April, as the marina is town-owned property.
A spokesperson for Lavalle said the state senator was meeting with representatives from the DOT Nov. 1 to discuss the incident and troublesome intersection.
This post was updated Oct. 31 to include information from the PJFD Chief’s office and a quote from Brennan Holmes, and Nov. 1 to include a response from Ken Lavalle’s spokesperson.