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boat ramp

The intersection of Barnum Avenue and West Broadway in Port Jeff Village now features left and right green arrows. Photo by Alex Petroski

Changes have finally been made to a Port Jefferson Village intersection closely situated near the Town of Brookhaven boat launch ramp within the Port Jefferson Marina.

The New York State Department of Transportation installed new traffic signals at the intersection of Barnum Avenue and West Broadway Dec. 12 in the hopes of further alerting northbound drivers on Barnum not to proceed through the intersection, as just yards away on the other side lies the boat ramp directly into Port Jefferson Harbor. The new signal features green left and right arrows, replacing the standard green signals that used to hang above the crossing.

The change was made after a letter was sent to the department by Village Mayor Margot Garant earlier this year calling for safety improvements in the aftermath of an April 6 incident in which a man in his early 60s drove into the harbor via the same boat launch. DOT Regional Director Joseph Brown responded to Garant in a letter dated Sept. 15, saying the department had conducted an investigation which included an accident analysis, turning movement counts, pedestrian counts and field observations of the area. The letter also said the DOT would heed Garant’s request and change the traffic light.

On Oct. 30, 69-year-old Lake Grove resident William Whalen was pronounced dead at the hospital after he was pulled from a submerged vehicle in Port Jefferson Harbor. His vehicle entered the water via the troublesome intersection.

“I think it’s one of many steps we’re going to continue to take,” Garant said of the new traffic signals during a Dec. 18 board meeting. “For those who are paying attention the green arrows help, but I think clearly for those people who are having either a medical problem or maybe an ulterior motive, they might just continue to drive through. I don’t really know.”

Garant said the village’s only recourse at the intersection is to add more signage, which she said the village would pursue, as West Broadway is a New York State road, and Brookhaven owns the boat ramp and marina. A spokesperson from the town declined to comment and instead directed inquiries to the office of Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station)  regarding additional plans to prevent drivers from entering the harbor. Cartright’s office declined a request for comment.

Michael Schwarting and Frances Campani, of Campani and Schwarting Architects in Port Jefferson, in a joint letter to the editor and in a presentation to the village said they thought the new signals might not be enough. The architects suggested the exit from the ramp could be narrowed so that it does not perfectly align with the intersection.

“Narrowing the exit from the ramp so that it does not align with the Barnum lane running north would make it almost impossible to turn in,” the letter said. “It is pedestrian friendly, would not be very expensive and would add to the visual quality of the intersection.”

Village Deputy Mayor and Trustee Larry LaPointe said during the meeting he liked the architects’ idea.

“I thought that was a very good design,” he said. “I’d like to see the town consider that.”

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. The wife and executrix of the estate of Richard Levin named the town and village as co-defendants in a lawsuit in 2007. A New York State Supreme Court judge ultimately dismissed the case in 2011, finding the municipalities were not at fault.

Neil DeVine and Scott Declue are honored in front of family and attendees of a Port Jeff Village board meeting for saving a motorist who drove into the harbor in April. Photos by Alex Petroski

The decisive actions of four good Samaritans likely saved the life of a motorist who drove his car into Port Jefferson Harbor via the Brookhaven Town boat ramp at the end of Barnum Avenue in Port Jeff Village in April, and for their efforts the heroic men were honored by the board of trustees during a meeting July 17.

Scott Declue was on the phone with his wife Jeyce, with whom he had plans to meet later in the evening April 6. The 40-year-old Mount Sinai resident said in a phone interview he was driving on Route 25A in a severe rainstorm, and was sitting at the light at the intersection of Barnum Avenue and Route 25A, yards south of the boat ramp which leads straight into the harbor. When the light turned green, he said miraculously it stopped raining, and near the edge of the dock he could see a car almost fully submerged in the water. Declue said he told his wife he was going to pull over to take a picture. Soon after stepping out of the car he said he saw a person’s head peeking out of the sunroof of the car.

Good Samaritans and SCPD Marine Bureau divers help a driver submerged in
Port Jefferson Harbor April 6. Photo by Andrew Tetreault/Fully Involved Media Group

“If I don’t do something this guy is going to die in front of me,” Declue said was the thought crossing his mind as he began running to the end of the dock, shedding clothing as he went. Declue dove into the water and swam to the car.

Port Jefferson Village resident Neil DeVine, 38, was also driving when he said he realized something was out of the ordinary. He said he was making a right onto Barnum Avenue from Route 25A when he caught a glimpse of the car, and turned around to enter the marina parking lot. He said he repeatedly tried to call 911 but got a busy signal several times.

“I didn’t expect the water to be as cold as it was,” DeVine said during a phone interview. Village Mayor Margot Garant said during the presentation of a proclamation to honor the heroism of the four men that the water was about 38 degrees at the time of the incident, which occurred around 5:30 p.m. DeVine said he and Declue jumped in the water, but he soon realized his heart rate and breathing were slowing.

Declue reached the car and got on the roof attempting to pull the driver out of the car. DeVine said he went back to the dock and tried to find a way to help pull both men to safety. The two men described DeVine luckily finding a line from a crane on a nearby barge that was tied to a ring, and both line and ring were thrown to Declue and the victim. DeVine, with other-witnesses-turned-heroes Tony Barton and Wayne Rampone Jr., pulled the two men to the dock and lifted them out of the water. Barton and Rampone could not attend the meeting.

Declue, who is an Eagle Scout, said he thought the victim was dead while he tried to get him to safety.

“His eyes were rolled back a little bit and yellowish,” DeVine said of the victim. He added during the rescue he heard the driver say he couldn’t swim.

“If I don’t do something this guy is going to die in front of me.”

— Scott Declue

Since the incident Declue said he spoke briefly with the victim and family members, but no in-person meeting has taken place. DeVine said the victim’s mother wrote a letter to DeVine’s children, thanking him for his bravery and explaining the actions the men took on the night of the incident.

Declue said he had a hard time articulating to his wife what exactly happened after he tossed his phone and sprinted to the end of the dock.

“I think I saved someone’s life,” he said he told her. “She asked, ‘How big was this puddle?’”

Declue called it divine intervention that his plans changed.

“I wasn’t even supposed to be there,” he said, adding that the incident kept him up at night for weeks.

DeVine said he was appreciative of the village recognizing their actions.

“We want to thank you for, really, saving a life in the Village of Port Jefferson,” Garant said. “That’s what this community stands for — citizens like yourselves seeing a person in harm’s way or an accident situation — so I really want to commend you on behalf of the board of trustees.”

The victim was treated for severe injuries in the aftermath of the incident according to the Suffolk County Police Department, and his current condition is not known.

Good Samaritans and SCPD Marine Bureau divers help a driver submerged in Port Jefferson Harbor April 6. Photo by Andrew Tetreault/Fully Involved Media Group

Following an April incident in which a man drove into Port Jefferson Harbor via the Town of Brookhaven boat ramp located at the north end of Barnum Avenue, Port Jefferson Village is calling for action.

Village Mayor Margot Garant announced during a board meeting June 5 the village has 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 April 6 incident saw a man in his early 60s drive into Port Jefferson Harbor via the ramp at about 5:30 p.m., according to the Suffolk County Police Department. The car was found submerged underwater and a few good Samaritans helped remove the man from the car. Members from the Suffolk County Marine Bureau dive team went in the water to search for possible additional victims. The driver was treated for serious injuries at Stony Brook Hospital and his current condition is still not known, according to Garant.

“People sometimes are losing their way on a misty morning or a foggy morning or a rainy morning or on a sunny morning,” Garant said during the meeting.

In the aftermath of the incident in April Garant called on the Town of Brookhaven to step up and do something to resolve the recurring issue, as the ramp is town property.

“It’s only a matter of time before this happens again,” she said.

A spokesperson for the town that asked not to be named responded to Garant’s calls for action at the time.

“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.”

This is not the first time the positioning of the town ramp beyond the village intersection has been the source of controversy.

According to documents obtained from Brookhaven in May, both the town and village were sued by the wife and executrix of the estate of Richard Levin in 2007. Levin died Dec. 5, 2005, after driving into the water via the ramp at about 6 p.m. Alice Cialella, an eyewitness of the incident who was directly behind Levin in traffic, said Levin had his left blinker on, hesitated momentarily, then accelerated through the intersection and plunged into the harbor via the ramp.

“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.”

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.”

Christopher Kelsch, a former village resident who was given a Carnegie Medal by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for trying to save Levin, said in an April phone interview he’d like to see action to prevent similar future accidents.

“People are dying here and it’s a simple fix,” he said. Kelsch also testified on behalf of Levin’s case in the 2011 lawsuit.