Yellow tape stretched between the pilings at the commercial dock at the end of Gann Road in East Hampton this week, where a 2004 Subaru plunged into Three Mile Harbor on Jan. 4 with Halsey L. Dickinson Jr. of East Hampton at the wheel. Mr. Dickinson died in the submerged vehicle.
The tragic event was reported to the East Hampton Town Police Department at 2:30 p.m. by an eyewitness. Before the car was pulled from the water, at 8 p.m., approximately 50 emergency workers had responded.
In addition to the East Hampton Town Police and Marine Patrol Departments, the tragic event bought out volunteers from six fire departments. Eight divers from five different departments and the East Hampton Town dive team took part. Also dispatched were the East Hampton Volunteer Ocean Rescue Squad, the Coast Guard, a Suffolk County police helicopter, and marine bureau personnel of the Suffolk sheriff’s office. Both Springs Fire Department ambulances stood by, as did a fire engine, a rescue truck, and an East Hampton aerial ladder.
An investigation into what occurred is being led by East Hampton Town Detective Lt. Christopher Anderson.
“We’re awaiting results of the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office, as well as other investigative avenues that we’re exploring,” Lieutenant Anderson said. An inspection of the car for a mechanical malfunction is very near completion, he said.
Emergency response was said to be immediate, as well as massive. After calling police, the eyewitness, who was not named, alerted East Hampton marine patrol, whose headquarters is in the parking lot at the commercial dock.
The harbormasters on duty there, Tim Treadwell and Dale Petruska, “got under way in one of their marine vessels. The [Subaru] was almost fully submerged, and they made an attempt to tie off onto the vehicle,” Lieutenant Anderson said. “One of the marine patrols donned his drysuit, and was going to make an attempt to get into the water to extricate the occupants,” he said. At that point, however, the vehicle was completely submerged, and “it was not practical for marine patrol to get in the water.”
Ben Miller, the first assistant chief of the Springs Fire Department, arrived two minutes after the 911 call was dispatched. “The tide was coming in, the car had drifted 100 yards, and was 30 yards off the bulkhead. The only thing above the water was the rear bumper, and the rear window of the car,” he said.
Mr. Miller took charge until John Claflin, the department chief, could be relieved of duty as an East Hampton Town police officer. “When we get calls for a car in the water, it usually doesn’t go far, maybe five feet,” Mr. Miller said, “This guy was out there. It takes some force to break a piling.”
East Hampton Town police established a command post on the second floor of the marine patrol building. Philip Garypie, chief of Sag Harbor Fire Department, ran a cooperative fire department post. “There was constant communication, and a well-coordinated effort between police and the fire departments,” Mr. Miller said.
“When we got in into the water, it was going five knots. Divers were battling the current, and had to locate the vehicle, now under water,” Mr. Miller said. The North Sea and Hampton Bays dive teams were called to help, and Southampton divers stood by if necessary. Between locating the vehicle and the victim, there is nothing worse than running out of manpower,” he said.
“You always want to have more than the two or three divers you have on your team,” Lieutenant Anderson said. “It might be a prolonged rescue. You may need to rotate your divers, who would come together in a situation like this,” he added.
Mr. Miller explained that divers can remain under the water for 10 minutes before they have to come up. The first divers, from the Sag Harbor Fire Department, were able to locate the car.
“When the water temperature is colder, the chances of [a victim’s] survival increases,” Mr. Miller said. “But from the time we went in, to the time he came out, it was actually an hour,” he said. Mr. Dickinson’s body was retrieved at 4 p.m.
Equipment needed for the divers had to be brought to the scene, which added minutes to the emergency effort. “Unless someone is sitting there [prepared to dive], it is going to be a recovery instead of a rescue,” said Mr. Miller.
The car was pulled up to the dock, and secured, Mr. Miller said. “With a boom from the back of the truck, they were able to pull it between two pilings” and lift it out.
There has been speculation about whether Mr. Dickinson drove into the water intentionally. Peter Mendelman, whose family owns the Harbor Marina, which is just off Gann Road, reported that the car had been captured by their outside security cameras.
The video shows someone driving into the Gann Road parking lot. According to Mr. Mendelman, “an eyewitness said he circled around, paused, and then in a straight line gunned it to the channel.” The footage confirms this, Mr. Mendelman said. “You can see radiator steam, and a puff. Then he was gone.”
Mr. Dickinson did not apply the brakes or turn the wheel, Mr. Mendelman said. “It looks deliberate. My condolences go to the man’s family. It’s a sad time of year.”
Despite Mr. Dickinson’s death, Mr. Miller said rescuers were gratified by everyone’s performance. “There were plenty of resources. The best part is to make sure everyone goes home. It’s a risk versus reward scenario.”
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Miller said, “the outcome is what it is.”