The death of Eric Przykuta in a boating accident last May shook many residents in Lancaster who struggled to deal with the loss of the middle-school teacher and coach.
While the community and Przykuta's family struggled, Michael Cronin mourned the loss of his best friend. And now Cronin has been charged in connection with the fatal accident.
Cronin, 46, an off-duty police officer, was operating the boat that hit the breakwall, throwing Przykuta into the waters off the Small Boat Harbor, said police at the time of the May 12, 2018, accident. Last week Cronin was charged with misdemeanor reckless operation and imprudent speed, a violation under New York State Navigation Law.
Przykuta's family, meanwhile, is preparing to file a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the wife and children of Eric Przykuta "against those responsible," said attorney J. Patrick Lennon of Rosenthal, Kooshoian & Lennon.
Przykuta, 43, left behind a wife, who also is a teacher, and two young children. His parents and immediate family remain devastated at the loss of their loved one. Przykuta taught science in the Lancaster district for nearly 20 years. He was president of the Lancaster Central Teachers Association for 10 years and coached boys modified lacrosse.
“It’s been hell,” said Dennis Przykuta in describing the year that’s passed since the death of his son. “We’re having a tough time.”
The elder Przykuta is having such a hard time that he said he cannot bear to take his boat out of storage.
“It was getting close to the time we’d get my boat ready for fishing, so we went up north to get the boat out of storage,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”
News of the charges filed against Cronin set the family back, said Dennis Przykuta.
“We didn’t hear anything for almost a year, and then we get this news,” he said. "We were just starting the grieving process, and now we’re reliving it. It’s getting hairy. Let us try to heal. ”
Thomas H. Burton, the attorney who is representing Cronin, said his client and Przykuta were friends from grade school.
"He has been living with the weight of his best friend’s death since this happened," Burton said.
According to Burton, the pair and a third man were coming back from a fishing trip in Hamburg in the dark when the accident occurred. Cronin tried repeatedly to save his friend, said Burton.
"There’s nothing cowardly about what happened," Burton said. "He incurred hypothermia trying to find his friend."
Przykuta was found dead in the water the next day about 30 feet away.
Division Chief Patrick Britzzalaro of the Buffalo Fire Department, who responded to the call, vividly recalled finding two survivors: Cronin and the third boater, another off-duty officer.
“They were almost in a state of shock – emotionally overwhelmed – when we found the two of them on the other side of the breakwall,” he said.
One detail, among many events that occurred on that May evening will forever stay with Britzzalaro, who remembered walking along the harbor pier and talking with the search teams looking for the craft.
“I was talking to the Coast Guard on the radio, but the transmission was garbled,” said Britzzalaro. “I walked to the end of the pier to get a better frequency and I thought: ‘This is one black dark inky night.' "
Cronin, who was hired by the Lancaster Police Department in 1995, was promoted to lieutenant in 2012. He has been involved in the leadership of the department's Emergency Response Team (E.R.T.) since his promotion, said Lancaster Police Chief William J. Karn Jr.
“The charges have no effect on his duties as lieutenant,” said Karn. "Lieutenant Cronin has not violated any of our rules of conduct or policies. He has an excellent record with the department.”
Burton said what happened on that night was a "tragic accident." He said alcohol was not a factor, nor was "wild inappropriate behavior" by anyone involved.
"This was a nightmarish accident and has created a cloud for everyone that will probably never go away," Burton said.