SYLVAN BEACH, N.Y. – It was a "guys day," a celebration of family and summer. Three boys and their dad took a 20-foot powerboat out on the central New York lake where they grew up, partly to mark the oldest boy's upcoming engagement.
Stephen Aceto's girlfriend, Krista Zeisman, suspected the big question was coming her way but didn't know for sure, said Stephen's mother, Carolyn Aceto. Up from Tampa, Fla., where she and Stephen lived, she was meeting the large, close-knit Italian family for the first time since they started dating a year ago.
As the women, Carolyn and Krista included, mingled at home in nearby Utica, the men were on Oneida Lake, watching fireworks a day after Independence Day. It was a lake, Carolyn said, they knew "like the back of your hand" from family outings over the decades before.
"They were just going to have a guys' day," Carolyn Aceto said in a strong voice that yielded to occasional cracks. "Just a guys' fun day, then all of us all together."
Shortly after 10 p.m., the pilot, believed to be 33-year-old Timothy, got distracted by fireworks. He looked away for a second and hit the concrete base of a buoy, wrecking the boat and sending all four men into the water. None wore a lifejacket.
The bodies of family patriarch Anthony Aceto, 66, Stephen, 41, and Timothy, were recovered the next day by emergency crews. Anthony, a 39-year-old husband and father of a 2-year-old boy, survived with a broken shoulder and cracked ribs. Though cleared physically to go home Saturday, his mother said he is shattered by the tragedy, shouldering the burden of survivor's guilt for not being able to save his father and brothers.
"He's lost his father, his brothers," Carolyn Aceto told The Associated Press on Saturday evening. "He couldn't save them."
A friend who was boating alongside the Aceto family, Rob Luckina, saved young Anthony and tried to save the others.
"He still can't get over it," Carolyn Aceto said.
A salvage crew recovered the boat Saturday from the waters off Sylvan Beach.
The accident happened in an area known as Messenger Shoal, about five miles west of Sylvan Beach, on the lake's eastern end. The men were returning to the village when the crash occurred, said Oneida County Sheriff's Lt. James McCarthy.
McCarthy said the buoy has a light that flashes intermittently. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
"They knew it like the back of your hand," Carolyn Aceto said, talking about family outings on Oneida Lake twice a week in good weather when the boys were growing up. "They just happened to turn around and look at fireworks."
At the Aceto home in Utica, where Anthony and Carolyn raised their boys in a "big, typical Italian family," dozens of friends and family gathered Saturday to support the clan.
"We were all inseparable," Carolyn Aceto said. "No matter what or where we were. We were inseparable. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing."
Anthony Aceto was retired from the New York State Department of Transportation but had taken a job at a local bus transfer station "just for something to do," Carolyn said. He adored his children and his grandchildren.
"And he adored me," his wife of 42 years said.
Stephen, the oldest, moved to Florida about a decade ago and had an 8-year-old son, Grayson, and a 5-year-old daughter, Piper, from a previous marriage. Timothy, the owner of the boat, had his own home improvement business and was married with a 15-year-old daughter.
"I'm just glad I've got one son left," Carolyn said. "He's got a cracked shoulder and broken ribs but he made it. He's lost his father. He couldn't save them. He's having nightmares."
Carolyn Aceto said funeral arrangements hadn't been made yet. The family will do what they've always done in times of trouble: Lean on each other.
"There's one son left to draw on," she said. "I need him to lean on. My husband's not here to draw on."