Teens rescue pair struggling in current off Wasque Point Beach

The three rescuers (left to right): Brian Panzella, Tom Angelilli and Nick Gallo. — Photo courtesy of Tom Angellili

Three mainland teens working on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer went to the beach after a hard day of work. As they prepared to leave, they spotted two people in the water and decided to linger. They sensed there might be a problem. It was a decision that likely saved the lives of two men struggling in the strong currents that sweep the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick.

Tom Angelilli and his cousin Nick Gallo of Westchester County, New York, and friend Brian Panzella of Boise Idaho, work for Donna Kelly Fine Gardening and Landscaping on Chappaquiddick. The three 18-year-olds finished work Tuesday. The day was sunny and warm.

“We had just finished work and went to the beach,” Tom Angelilli told The Times in a phone call Wednesday. “We had been hanging out about an hour and we were just getting ready to leave and we saw some kids who were really far out there. And we thought, maybe we should just take one extra second and see if they are all right.”

The teens were on a section of beach, part of the Wasque Reservation, owned and managed by The Trustees of Reservations, a private conservation group.

The Trustees do not provide lifeguards on its Chappy beaches, which feature dramatic vistas and shifting currents. The breach in the adjacent Norton Point Beach has led to dramatic changes in the barrier beach that separates Katama Bay from the Atlantic Ocean and accentuated the shifting currents associated with Wasque Point.

The teens watched the two men in the water. They appeared to be struggling. Then, all of a sudden,” Mr. Angelilli said, “We heard, ‘Help! Help!'”

It was after 5 pm, and there were few other people nearby. The teens sprinted to a 12-foot rescue surfboard with six handles — one of five such boards The Trustees place at stations along the beach — and plunged into the ocean.

“We just started paddling out to them,” Mr. Angelilli said. Mr. Angelilli and Mr. Panzella were on the front of the board paddling. Mr. Gallo was on the rear kicking.

“We were just yelling to them as we got closer, ‘don’t panic, we’re coming to get you guys.'” The two swimmers remained calm but were clearly tiring. The teens approached and took them on board.

The men, now weighted down with the two exhausted swimmers, fought the strong current and returned to the safety of the beach. “It was probably the biggest workout of my life,” Mr. Angelilli said.

Mr. Angelilli said he only learned the first names of the swimmers he helped rescue, Devon and Eugene from Boston, college students visiting the Island for one week.

They told him they were walking out on a sandbar on the east side of Norton Point Beach. “They thought they were still on a sandbar and then all of a sudden it got really deep and they lost their footing and the riptide just took them,” he said.

Devon and Eugene thanked their rescuers and told them but for their actions they would not have made it to safety — they could not have fought the current for much longer.

“It’s just a very good thing that we saw them when we did because there was no one else on that beach going out there,” Mr. Angelilli said.

Asked if he has any lifeguard experience, Mr. Angelilli said, “I don’t. But I saw the board and just went for it.”

Wrong location

At 5:41 pm Tuesday the Dukes County Communications Center mobilized West Tisbury and Chilmark fire and rescue personnel to respond to a call of three swimmers in the water approximately two miles off Long Point Beach in West Tisbury.

As rescue personnel tried to pinpoint a location and learn more about the exact nature of the call, communications center dispatchers continually attempted to reach the cell phone number of the person who had called 9-1-1 to report an emergency.

Approximately 15 minutes later, with police, fire and Coast Guard units on the way down long dirt roads to the approximate location, dispatchers learned that the location was Wasque and the swimmers were out of the water.

In a telephone conversation Wednesday morning, Susan Schofield, communications center supervisor, described the sequence of events.

Calls to 9-1-1 are routed through the State Police call center in Middleboro. Generally, she said, most calls are transferred to the Vineyard communications center so that dispatchers are able to speak directly to the party.

In this case the Middleboro dispatcher took the information and conveyed it to the Island 9-1-1 center. Ms. Schofield said that could have been a result of poor cell connection or difficulty in understanding what the caller was saying.

Although cell phone reception varies greatly from location to location on Martha’s Vineyard, Ms. Schofield said cell phone calls allow dispatchers to fix a location.

Brave action

Late Tuesday, Paul Smith of Carlisle, his wife and two family members were visiting the beach at Wasque Point. In an email, Mr. Smith said he saw two young men swimming about 400 to 500 yards offshore near the end of a large sand bar when they were suddenly caught in the rip current at the end of the bar.

“They began screaming for help when they apparently became exhausted and realized they were being carried further off shore,” he wrote. “Hearing their screams, I ran to the rescue board station located about 100 yards from us and took the board from its mount.”

As he headed to the water, he said, three young men came running up, offered to help and took the board from him.

“They quickly proceeded to paddle out after the troubled swimmers. Being 73 years of age, I may not have made it to them in time, but these three young men, being much younger and stronger, had a better chance.

“The situation looked worrisome for a while, but the three pushed hard through the current and made it to the troubled boys just in time and managed to get them safely back to shore where all were very exhausted but thankfully safe,” Mr. Smith wrote.

Mr. Smith said that as he ran for the rescue board, his wife called 9-1-1. He said the poor connection made it difficult to provide information and a precise location.

In a follow-up telephone call, Mr. Smith, a retired corporate president and CEO, explained that his wife is French and her accent along with the poor reception likely caused the confusion between Wasque Point and Long Point.

“What should be recognized here is the bravery and immediate unselfish reaction of the three young rescuers whose names I unfortunately did not get,” Mr. Smith wrote in his email. “They simply appeared, knew what to do, and did it! We all can’t thank them enough.” He added, “It’s very refreshing to know that this generation has such good young people.”

Mum to mum

In a telephone call just before press time, Devon asked The Times to relay to the three rescuers how grateful he and his friend Eugene are – “We now call [them] our saviors,” he said.

Devon said he attends Berklee College of Music, and Eugene attends Boston College. Both are 19 and are working on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. He said he is familiar with the Island.

He and Eugene had spent about one hour on the sandbar then set out to return to the beach and lost their footing.

“That was our experience,” he said. “I’ll never do that again.”

Asked to provide their last names, Devon demurred. “We didn’t tell our mothers,” he said. “They don’t know, and we want it to stay that way.”


An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Brian Panzella is from Westchester County, New York. He is from Boise Idaho.