Croton River storm victim was experienced rafter, friends say
9:08 PM, Aug. 29, 2011
CROTON-ON-HUDSON — A rafting trip on the storm-tossed waters of the Croton River that started out as high adventure for a group of whitewater sportsmen ended in tragedy. The man killed on the ill-fated rafting trip was a seasoned expert with more than 35 years experience on such rapids, his friends say. Dr. Peter Engel, 53, a psychiatrist from Cross River, drowned Sunday afternoon after he and four fellow boaters were thrown into the raging river that was rushing by at 48 mph in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
"He was floating face down when we pulled him up. We started chest compressions and took him to shore," said Croton police Sgt. John Nikitopoulos, who heads the department's marine unit and came across Engel. Three Croton firefighters were tossed from their own rescue boat when they tried to head into the torrent. "I've never seen current like that — extremely treacherous . It was really crazy out there," Nikitopoulos said, and the rescuers were struggling in the fierce waters. "Everyone was in jeopardy."
Three other boaters were identified as Kenneth Giaquinto, 37, of Valhalla; Joseph Ceglia, 33, of White Plains; and Michael Wolfert, 37, of Croton. Brian Dooley, 33, of Yorktown, a third-grade teacher in the Rye school district and the boys varsity lacrosse coach at Rye High School, was later rescued by Croton police in a Zodiac inflatable boat after clinging to a tree in the river for more than two hours. He was taken to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla for treatment for extreme exposure and hypothermia. "I'd like to put in a personal apology to anyone we put in harm's way yesterday," Wolfert said Monday. "And shed light on the fact that Peter was a very experienced paddler. We don't want to say the decision-making was right — we're not saying that — but he certainly had paddled bigger water all over the world."
In a joint statement released by Giaquinto, the survivors said Sunday was a tragic day that left them deeply saddened. "We are thankful for all the rescuers' efforts, professionalism and care in our time of need," they said. "We understand people risked their own safety to ensure ours, and we are deeply grateful and fortunate for all of you. We are sorry for the danger we caused and thank God that no rescue workers suffered severe injuries." They expressed sympathy for the Engel family, calling Peter "a unique soul who is so special that words cannot describe him. When in his presence you can feel his joyful and contagious passion for life." They said he had been a whitewater professional, working as a paddling guide for 35 years, with experience in extreme conditions. "He will be missed and will live on in our hearts forever," they said.
The Croton Fire Department's boat, a 16-foot aluminum craft, overturned after it deployed near the railroad bridge at the mouth of the Croton River. "The current just knocked them over," said First Assistant Fire Chief John Munson. "Luckily it didn't take long; they were pulled out pretty quickly." The three firefighters were evaluated at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow and released.
After the storm's passage in the afternoon, onlookers went to the Croton Dam and the park there to witness the powerful surge of water in the aftermath of Irene. Some were amazed when they watched the rafters gear up to take to the water. Mark Stevenson snapped some pictures and video as they prepared their craft — a scene of excitement and high spirits. "I was astounded. They seemed competent, professional, and they had expensive gear," Stevenson recalled. "Everyone seemed dumbfounded that anyone would try to do this. But they had an air of authority." Stevenson later heard helicopters in the area, and got a message that evening that something had gone horribly wrong. "When I heard this man had passed away, it was kind of sickening. That it ended so badly, it was awful. Seeing the last moments of that man's life, it's pretty intense," Stevenson said. Another Croton resident, Geoffrey Haynes, said the rapids reminded him of the currents below Niagara Falls. Haynes, an experienced canoeist, said he marveled at the challenge the rafters were taking. "This was so churned up that any boat was going to have trouble navigating through it," he said.
Wolfert said the friends who went into the river Sunday all had expertise in rafting and outdoor activities, working as raft guides and rescue specialists. "It's a risk we assume," said Wolfert, who runs a mountain-climbing business.
The rafting trip drew the ire of local emergency staff and village officials. "They ended up putting their own lives at risk and the lives of rescuers at risk," said Richard Nagle, the village's director of emergency services. Ceglia was pulled first from the water, at 5:52 p.m. Giaquinto called 911 after climbing ashore on the Ossining side of the river and flagging down a passing car.
Ten minutes after that, Wolfert swam to safety near Truesdale Drive, police said. Engel was pulled aboard the police rescue boat at 6:24 p.m. He was taken by ambulance to Phelps, where he was pronounced dead. It wasn't until 8:45 that Dooley broke free from the trees he'd been holding onto and was rescued by police near Dickey's Cliffs. State, county and New York City watershed police assisted in the rescue effort, along with numerous emergency medical responders. The Croton fireboat was recovered Monday afternoon.
The Westchester County Medical Examiner's Office listed Engel's cause of death as asphyxia due to drowning and hypothermia. Police officials say the matter is under investigation.
Westchester psychiatrist dies in rafting capsize during Hurricane Irene; NYPD rescues other rafters
BY Barry Paddock
NY DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Originally Published:Monday, August 29th 2011
A Westchester County man died and two of his companions had to be rescued after a rafting trip on a hurricane-roiled river in Westchester County went horribly wrong Sunday. Peter Engel, 53 of Cross River, drowned after the group's raft capsized in the Croton River about 5:40 p.m., authorities said Monday. Engel, a psychiatrist and the father of two adult children, had more than 35 years experience in whitewater rafting around the world, a devastated friend said.
"Somehow we just hit the wrong spot at the wrong angle at the wrong time," said one of the surviving rafters, Michael Wolfert, who managed to swim ashore.
One of their fellow rafters, Brian Dooley, 33, of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., was adrift for three hours but eventually rescued from the rapids by emergency responders with help from an NYPD helicopter.
The group of five had sought adventure on the river's storm-swelled currents."You could call them extremists who wanted to experience extreme rapids," said Lt. Commander Russel Harper of the Croton Police Department.
"The river was excessively dangerous and extremely rapid as a result of the earlier rainfall from Hurricane Irene."
After the raft flipped over in the turbulent currents, two men, Wolfert, 37, of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., and Kenneth Giaquinto, 37, of Valhalla, N.Y., swam to the shoreline. Joseph Ceglia, 33, of White Plains, N.Y., was clinging to branches in the river and rescuers pulled him ashore safely.
Rescuers spotted Engel floating unconscious in the middle of the river and managed to pull him aboard a police boat. He was rushed to a local hospital, but could not be saved.
"Peter is a unique soul who is so special that words cannot describe him," Giaquinto said of Engel, who specialized in treatment of addictions. "When in his presence you can feel his joyful and contagious passion for life."
There was no sight of Dooley for nearly two hours before rescuers spotted him holding desperately onto a tree near the river's edge. "It was a very tough spot," Harper said. "It was thick trees and brush and very steep slopes."
When members of the Croton Fire Department joined the rescue effort, their boat capsized. Three volunteer firefighters were swept about a quarter-mile downstream, reaching the point where the Croton River joins the Hudson River. They were all able to swim ashore safely. But Dooley was still holding onto the tree for dear life as night fell. About an hour after he was first spotted, he lost his grip on the tree - just as an NYPD air-sea-rescue helicopter zoomed to the scene, Harper and NYPD officials said.
Police on board the helicopter used the chopper's spotlight to track Dooley as his head bobbed in the current. He was swept about a half-mile down the river, but because the NYPD helicopter crew kept the spotlight on him as he drifted, rescuers in a Croton police boat were able to pluck him from the water, the officials said. Dooley was rushed to Westchester County Medical Center, where he was treated for extreme exposure and hypothermia.
The five men had scouted the river prior to launching their raft, and all had experienced more intense rapids in the past, Wolfert said. Several of them were trained as first responders and been involved in water rescues. "We were not novices," Wolfert said. "I just want to make that clear. Not to make it sound like our decision [to go rafting] was a good one. We regret that decision."