BROOKHAVEN, N.Y. — The captain of a sinking tugboat died after he panicked and jumped into icy waters off New York's Fire Island without putting on his immersion suit, while three crew members managed to hang onto life rings, the survivors told the Coast Guard.
The Sea Bear was behind two other tugboats heading back to base when it started sinking in stormy weather Saturday afternoon. Coast Guard Petty Officer Morgan Gallapis said one of the crew members in the water made an emergency cellphone call to the Coast Guard and asked for help.
"They had only seconds to let us know before they sank," said Gallapis, who is based with the Coast Guard station in New Haven, Connecticut.
When the Coast Guard arrived at the scene, "they could not locate the vessel because at that time, it had sunk," Coast Guard Petty Officer Sabrina Laberdesque said on Sunday.
But about 15 minutes later, Coast Guard rescuers came upon the three crew members holding on to two life rings in the water a mile off a section of Fire Island known as The Pines.
"They were huddled together in their immersion suits and we rescued them from the water," Laberdesque said, adding that the weather was deteriorating rapidly, with fog and a cold front coming in.
The immersion suit of one crew member was filling with water as he waited for rescue, according to the Coast Guard.
The three crew members were treated for hypothermia at the Fire Island Coast Guard station but otherwise had no physical injuries.
The body of on-duty captain, Donald Maloney, was found shortly after 5 p.m. Suffolk County police said Maloney had not been able to put on an immersion suit as the boat was sinking in 37-degree waters.
The other crew members told the Coast Guard that Maloney "had a panicked and jumped into the water without putting on his immersion suit," Leberdesque said.
She said the three crew members "did the right thing staying together, so it minimizes search efforts trying to locate additional people."
Police identified the three survivors as Lars Vetland, 43, of Staten Island; Jason Reimer, 38, of Leonardo, New Jersey; and Rainer Bendixen, 22, of Bay Head, New Jersey.
Fire Island is a long, skinny barrier island that hugs the south shore of Long Island. The tugboat was heading back to its base in Bayonne, New Jersey, after working in Moriches on a dredging project, police said.
"This tug was in the back of the line when it sank," said Gallapis. "The other tugs continued without seeing them. They heard the distress call and headed back to assist in the search."
Suffolk County police said the inclement weather prevented their aviation officers from flying and police Marine Bureau boats were hampered by heavy ice in the water. Three Coast Guard boats, a helicopter, the two other tugboats, Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau boats and Suffolk officers on the beach all searched for Maloney.
An autopsy is to be performed on the captain by the Suffolk County medical examiner.