Growing up near beaches on the South Fork, Kaley Castantine naturally gravitated toward the water. She became a lifeguard as a teenager and developed into a strong swimmer. From an early age, she set out to help others.
What she faced on an October night in 2018 was unlike any other rescue either as a lifeguard or now as an officer in the Riverhead Police Department. Ms. Castantine, 30, was the first on scene when a 911 caller reported a vehicle had driven down the beach access ramp at the end of Roanoke Avenue. The vehicle continued across the beach at a high rate of speed and crashed into Long Island Sound.
Ms. Castantine arrived at the beach and looked out into darkness. The vehicle had completely submerged between 75 and 100 feet off shore.
“When it’s a situation like that, there’s no time to think,” she said. “Some people run and some people go into the battle.”
For her efforts that night to help try to save a young man’s life, Ms. Castantine was awarded the Riverhead Police Benevolent Association’s Officer of the Year award Friday night during a ceremony at the Long Island Aquarium.
Riverhead officer John Morris, the PBA vice president, presented Ms. Castantine the award. And while he acknowledged the story didn’t end as everyone had wished — the 21-year-old driver died — he said her brave effort that night should not go unnoticed.
“She chose to put her own life on the line in an effort to save another human’s life,” he said.
Ms. Castantine, a Sag Harbor native, joined the Riverhead department in 2014 in a part-time role and was sworn in as a full-time officer in October 2016.
“She was eager to do this job,” Mr. Morris said. “She had the bug.”
As she accepted the award, she was accompanied by her grandparents Cynthia and Larry Burns. She said her grandparents raised her and she considers them her parents.
She credited them for molding her into the woman she has become. To have them there made the night extra special, she said.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Both her grandparents are approaching 90, she said, and there were concerns as of a week ago that they might be able to attend due to health reasons.
“The most important thing for me tonight was having them here to be a part of the event,” she said.
On the night of the rescue attempt, Ms. Castantine couldn’t see the vehicle when she removed her uniform shirt, vest, gun belt and boots and swam into the cold, dark water. Nearby residents who witnessed the incident help direct her where to go. She swam to the vehicle and stood on its roof. She quickly realized the vehicle’s windows needed to be broken. At that time, she began to receive assistance from Tim Corwin, first assistant chief of the Riverhead Fire Department, and a paramedic from Northwell Health.
The men helped shine light under the water and provided tools to help break the window.
Ms. Castantine dove underwater at least a dozen items in an effort to rescue the driver, Mr. Morris said. All the while, she feared the current could pull her in and trap her.
The trio soon cut the seatbelt and began to pull the victim out of the car and back toward the surface. The man was carried back to shore and transported to Peconic Bay Medical Center, three miles down the road, where he was pronounced dead.
Ms. Castantine said she often thinks back to that night.
“I think any human would in a situation like that,” she said.
After the incident in October, Det. Sgt. Ed Frost told the News-Review the driver’s identity would likely not be released.
The PBA honored several other officers during the ceremony with command and life saving awards for specific incidents.
Officer Richard Freeborn, who had been honored last month as Officer of the Year by the Kiwanis Club of Southampton, was again recognized for his role in saving a man who fell into the water at Grangebel Park. He was also recognized his action to recover a loaded firearm during a domestic incident.
Mr. Morris, a K-9 officer, was honored for apprehending a suspect for criminal trespass with the assistance of K-9 Rocky, who died in a police pursuit later in the year in September.
He thanked everyone for their support following Rocky’s death.
“Anyone who knew [Rocky] knew he wasn’t just a partner, he was a friend,” he said. “And he was a damn good K-9 cop.”
Officer Charles Cichanowicz was honored for his role in responding to an armed robbery that resulted in an arrest. Officer Daniel Hogan and Mr. Freeborn were both recognized for their efforts in locating four robbery suspects in another incident. Officer Christopher Burns was honored for his efforts while off duty to locate a missing woman who had left a suicide note. Officers Raymond LaPorte and Michael Carrieri were honored for a traffic stop that led to an arrest for criminal possession of a weapon.
Sgt. Jill Kubetz was honored for her actions in locating an occupied stolen vehicle.
Two members were recognized for their retirement: Sgt. Brian Gleason and Officer Mark Roberts.
Det. Dixon Palmer, the longtime president of the PBA who just retired, also received a special recognition. He was honored as the Member of the Year, an award that will now bear his name. It will now be known as the Dixon A. Palmer Police Benevolent Association Member of the Year Award.
Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith also presented Mr. Palmer a proclamation to honor his Member of the Year award.
The PBA also made Dylan Newman, a Southold teenager who is battling cancer, an honorary member of the PBA. His mother Tanya is police dispatcher in the department.
Dylan received a standing ovation.
His mother fought through tears as she stood at the podium to thank everyone for their support.
“We’re winning this battle,” said Todd Newman, Dylan’s father.