The Casabonas weren't planning on taking their boat out on a Saturday earlier this month — they had recently sold the vessel, and the buyer was coming to pick it up on Sunday. But the weather was nice, so they decided to take the Irish Lady out for one more spin. It's lucky they did, because they ended up saving the lives of five people that day.
They were 20 miles offMarco Island on Feb. 4 when the mayday call came in: A boat 12 miles west of Gordon Pass was sinking, and five people were on it, including three small children. But before the captain was able to give his exact coordinates, the radio cut out after a haunting final transmission: "We're going in the water."
The Casabonas recently moved to Marco Island from Passaic, N.J., so they didn't know where Gordon Pass was, but they desperately hoped that they'd be able to find the boat in distress and help its passengers.
"My wife and I said a quick prayer asking God to point us in the right direction," Angel Casabona said, "and we started to make our way towards Naples."
Six or seven miles later, Cheryl Casabona spotted something in the water.
"I couldn't tell what it was at first, if it was a buoy or a crab trap marker or whatever," she said. "But as we got closer, I realized it was a man waving a life vest."
But the other adult passenger and the three children were nowhere in sight.
"I just kept thinking 'There's kids in the water; we have to get to them. We have to help those kids,' " she said. "And as we got closer, I saw the other adult, and when we got even closer, I finally saw three little bodies huddled around a cooler, and I thanked God."
As Angel Casabona navigated the boat toward the stranded passengers, his wife and son Jake, 12, worked together to tie a rope to a flotation device and pull the five people aboard the Irish Lady.
It was then that they learned the two adults were off-duty Collier County Sheriff's Office deputies — who could not be reached in the days after for comment — and the three children were 8-year-old triplets, whom Cheryl Casabona quickly wrapped in blankets while her husband notified the Coast Guard.
"Everyone kind of knew their part," Cheryl Casabona said, "and it went as smooth as smooth could be."
"We were just happy to see them all together and doing okay," Angel Casabona added, especially since those types of situations don't always have a happy ending.
Nobody knows that better than the Casabonas, who both served as police officers in New Jersey for more than 20 years. "Over the years my wife and I have been involved in countless rescue situations involving children that ended in tragedy."
Which is why they're asking everyone to learn from their experience and always be willing to lend a helping hand.
"There was actually a fishing boat near the capsized vessel," Cheryl Casabona said. "The captain of the sinking boat kept saying, 'I see a fishing boat. There's a fishing boat here.' But no one on that fishing boat did anything to help, so you have to wonder if they were even paying attention to their surroundings, and if they were, why didn't they help."
"Keep your radios on and tuned to Channel 16," Angel Casabona added. "If you're out there and you see something, help. If it was your family and your kids, you'd want someone to help you."