Nassau County Police Det. Lt. John Azzata, right, gives information about a fatal boating accident during a news conference in Oyster Bay, N.Y., Thursday, July 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. (AP) — Investigators are trying to learn more about the crucial seconds before a yacht capsized off Long Island, killing three children and leaving 24 others scrambling for their lives.
The July Fourth accident has left more questions than answers in the search for a definitive cause. Investigators are counting on gaining knowledge from survivors and the boat itself once it is brought up from 60 feet below the surface of Long Island Sound.
Efforts to raise the boat might begin as early as Friday.
Authorities said several possibilities might have combined to doom the vessel known as Candi 1 as it was being positioned so passengers could watch fireworks.
Nassau County Detective Lt. John Azzata said the cause remained under investigation but possibilities include the weather, overcrowding and a wake from another vessel. He said the area was busy with boaters watching the fireworks.
The boat's skipper, Sal Aureliano, has told TV's News12 Long Island that he saw two lightning bolts and then a wave suddenly hit the 34-foot boat off Oyster Bay, on the north shore of Long Island.
"It turned the boat around," he said, his voice cracking. "It just turned the boat. I didn't see it. It was dark. I didn't see it."
"The next thing I know, we're turning, and we just kept turning, and everybody was in the water. It was chaos," said Aureliano, who didn't answer the door to The Associated Press.
Authorities said the children who died got trapped in the cabin.
Killed were Aureliano's nephew David Aureliano, 12, and two girls, 11-year-old Harley Treanor and 8-year-old Victoria Gaines. No serious injuries were reported by the 24 other adult-and-children passengers who were rescued from the water, mostly by fellow boaters.
The Silverton yacht was built in 1984 but purchased recently. The yacht company filed for bankruptcy in April, and no one was available to say what the maximum number aboard should be.
The boat's owner is Kevin Treanor, said attorney James Mercante, who was hired by an insurance company to represent him. Mercante said he had not spoken with Treanor but emphasized Treanor wasn't the yacht's operator when the accident occurred.
Telephone calls to Treanor's home and work telephones went unanswered Thursday night.
Police and the Coast Guard would not say how many of those aboard were adults and how many were children. Safety experts said most boats have a manufacturer's plate that lists capacity by number of adults and by total weight. So theoretically, a boat could safely handle more passengers if some were children.
Phil Cusumano, a Boston-based safety instructor and yacht captain with 35 years of experience, said there is no question the boat was badly overloaded. He said he would limit a vessel of that size to six adults. Other boating sites suggested a maximum of 15 passengers.
"Twenty-seven is just crazy," Cusumano said. "I wouldn't dream of doing that. I wouldn't do it at the dock, much less take it out on the water. It would tip over with the first turn."
Each Fourth of July, vessels crowd the Long Island Sound shoreline to watch public and private fireworks displays. When the shows end, the exodus can be the nautical equivalent of a highway traffic jam.
Scott Menzies, who said he positioned his 20-foot motor boat in the area to take in the celebration but did not see the accident, estimated there were at least 1,000 vessels on the water.
"It was pretty crazy," he said.
However, conditions on the water were calm during the fireworks and afterward, Menzies said.
Though there was some rain around 10 p.m., conditions were in "no way bad enough" to capsize a large boat on their own, said David Waldo, an expert boater who was also on the water Wednesday night.
Waldo, executive director of the WaterFront Center, a nonprofit sailing school in Oyster Bay, called the number of people aboard the yacht "alarming." School sailboats around the same length have a capacity of seven, he said.
"It's just asking for a situation where things can go wrong and compound on themselves," he said.
Another boater told Newsday he saw the yacht turn and then tip over after it was hit by a wake.
"It was like in slow motion," said Sammy Balasso, of Oyster Bay. "All of a sudden, a lot of bodies were in the water."
Balasso said he put the spotlight of his 38-foot speedboat on the capsized vessel and threw all the life jackets he had into the water. He said he rescued 20 people.
"Everybody was panicking," Balasso said. "People were saying things like 'Why?'"
Azzata said the boat should have had a life jacket for each person on board, but it was unclear if it did. Under state law, children under 12 are not required to wear life vests if they are in the main cabin, where the three victims were.
Mike Treanor, who was related to some of the victims, answered the door at his suburban home in nearby Huntington.
"It's a family tragedy," he said.