KAISER PARK, CONEY ISLAND (PIX11) – It was supposed to be just a few minutes of daring fun on the water during the Independence day holiday, but it ended up being a double fatal tragedy that recovery workers said could easily have been avoided.
They pulled the bodies of Willie Tom, 46, and Celine Fu, 29, from the depths of the entrance to Coney Island Creek early Friday afternoon, about 16 hours after an apparent undercurrent had pulled both of them beneath the surface of the water.
“It was very sad,” said an eyewitness who’d been on scene at around 8:00 P.M. Thursday evening, when the two had gone missing. “There was a lot of hope to find them alive,” he said.
The response by police, fire and Coast Guard rescue crews was swift. It was not fast enough, however, to save the life of the woman who was the wife of Willie Tom’s best friend.
Tom was piloting a jetski that belonged to a friend, and on it he picked up Fu for a ride off the beach. She’d waved to friends on shore and fell off. She couldn’t swim, so he dove in after her.
“That’s just my brother,” said Michael Tom, who’d come beachside to witness the recovery of his brother Willie’s body. “He’s always helping other people. He’s always looking out for other people, and he’ll be greatly missed,” the younger Tom said, choking back tears.
However, the NYPD, FDNY and Coast Guard pointed out that, according to family and friends, the two jetskiers were not wearing life vests, as required by New York law, and that they were riding together on a one-person watercraft, and that Fu could not swim. Add to that that a key element to water rescue is to not jump in after a victim, but to instead pull them out of the water from a watercraft or, preferably, from shore, and conditions were a perfect storm for tragedy.
Long-time residents of the northwestern section of Coney Island near Kaiser Park, where the double drowning took place, told PIX11 News that many factors present in the park lend themselves to another drowning being possible in the future.
In an effort to ensure that parkgoers did not try to put in boats or jetskis in the Coney Island Creek inlet, the city’s parks department had put up metal guard rails separating the park from the shoreline. Over time, residents told PIX11 News, people dismantled the guard rails.
The city had also placed boulders on a dropoff leading down from the park to the water. People covered the boulders with sand, creating a makeshift boat ramp that’s often used to move jetskis into the inlet. It also encourages people to swim there, which, as the double drowning demonstrates, is a dangerous prospect.
“You walk out into this murky water, 10 or 20 feet,” said 40-year resident James Whitaker, “and there’s nothing but undertows. All the way back there,” he said, pointing around the inlet where the drownings took place. “There’s nothing but undertows. The water’s very dangerous.”
He and other residents also told PIX11 News that the city had installed ‘No Swimming’ signs in the past, which parkgoers had removed over the years. They’re now saying that installing new signs could be a life-saving action, provided nobody steals them.