A life slips away under Lake Mead
Delores Petrilena’s life is unrecognizable, she said.
Before May 23, the Carson City woman was a new bride, married only 18 months to charismatic, blue-eyed Vinnie – a golf and hockey fanatic who moved to the West from Pittsburgh in the 1970s.
On that Sunday afternoon, she watched in horror as her husband disappeared beneath the deceptively calm waters of Arizona’s Lake Mead.
Now, she is a heartbroken widow going through the “motions” of life and waiting for word that her husband’s body has been found.
“My life has changed, and I don’t know what direction it’s going. We had our whole life planned. We were going to grow old together,” she whispered through tears. “I miss him every moment.”
Vincent Petrilena, 46, is believed to have drowned after he went swimming from a houseboat he and his wife had rented for a week with three other Carson City couples. Rescuers were unable to locate his body in the two weeks they scoured the reservoir 30 miles south of Las Vegas.
Delores said she is haunted by “what if.”
“I feel like I failed him,” she said. “I thought it was safe.”
The group drove to Las Vegas on May 22, reaching Callville Bay Resort & Marina that night, where they slept on the 65-foot houseboat. In the morning, with Delores at the wheel, the group headed out, spending the day cruising the reservoir created by Hoover Dam. About 2 p.m., as three people set off on a smaller boat to find a cove to dock in for the night, “Vinnie decided he wanted to go swimming,” Delores recalled.
He was itching to use the houseboat’s slide.
She said Vinnie went into the water and asked her to join him. But being the only one who could drive the boat, she opted instead to keep her husband company from the deck. The remaining three renters were in the front of the boat lounging on deck chairs.
After a short time, Vinnie began to swim in.
“It looked like he was just standing still in the water,” she recalled. “He swam about 10 strokes and he looked up, and I know he expected to see the boat, but when he looked up, he wasn’t any closer.”
The wind had suddenly picked up and moved the monstrous vessel away from her husband as he struggled to catch up.
“Then he tried to swim even harder to get to the boat.”
Recognizing Vinnie was in trouble, Delores looked for a life preserver to toss him. There wasn’t anything, she said. “The life jackets were all stored in a cabinet. There was no life ring.”
She grabbed a fishing net, but as she extended the 6-foot pole, she realized it was too short.
“He looked so panicked, and he was trying to swim harder,” she said.
Fighting to keep herself calm, Delores gently told Vinnie to relax, “Sweetie, I’ll bring the boat around to you,” she told him.
Racing past her friends to get to the helm, Delores and the others could hear him yelling for help.
“They thought at first he was kidding,” she recalled. Once they realized he was serious, they ran to the rear of the boat with life jackets.
She started the motor and “looped around. By this time, the wind had really picked up and the water was getting choppy. I didn’t want to run him over, and so I cut the engines back.”
Once you cut the engines, you don’t have any control over the direction of the boat, she explained. But fearful she’d plow over him, she did just that.
“I know now that I cut the engines off too soon,” she said, her voice choked with guilt. “The wind took the boat off to the side and away from him again.”
The group tossed life jackets, only to have them carried away by the wind as well. In all, Vinnie had been in the water about 20 minutes.
Janet Tamborino, who was wearing a life jacket, grabbed a flotation cushion and jumped in, Delores said.
Those on board yelled to Vinnie that help was coming, but Tamborino discovered steering herself to him was impossible.
“He was just tiring out. He was really fighting,” Delores said. “I was praying to God for help. We were just trying to do everything we could do to get to him, but nothing was working.
“And then he went down.”
The area where he disappeared was 180-feet deep.
Vinnie never came up. Delores ran to call for help on the radio.
When the other three renters returned on the smaller boat, one went to the spot where Vinnie was last seen. Two people who had heard their distress signal came on personal watercraft and helped search. After what seemed like forever, rangers appeared, marking the area and meticulously searching for days.
“Part of me knew he was gone. I saw him and I saw him go down, and I didn’t see him come back up. But the other part of me was hoping he’d call …” she said, her voice trailing off.
Vinnie’s parents flew from Pittsburgh that Tuesday. Delores’ father and son drove from Carson City. Within a day, Vinnie’s brothers made the trip. So did Delores’ sisters.
Two weeks later, the searching ended. Searches are expected to resume in October when the weather cools.
“There’s just no closure. You never know when you’re going to get a phone call and they say they’ve found him,” Delores said. “I know that he drowned in Lake Mead, but it’s hard to explain – I don’t have his body to mourn.”
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, family and friends will gather at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church on Lompa Lane for a Remembrance and Celebration of Life Mass to honor the city worker who last year received a longevity award for 13 years of service.
In lieu of flowers, Delores asks that people donate to aid future searches. She also hopes to use some of the money to get a bill before the Legislature requiring life rings on houseboats owned and operated in Nevada. She has set up a trust fund at Bank of America, account number 004969186566.
“The one thing that I really feel would have helped is if there had been a life ring. It would have given him some confidence,” she said.
Delores said she isn’t able to think too far in advance about her own life. “I’m having to redefine it,” she said.
When she looks at her wedding photographs, taken on Sept. 14, 2002, her eyes well with tears.
“He was a blessing to me. I thanked God every day. I told people, when you trust in God, look at what miracles he does for you. He put Vinnie in my life. I was so thankful and so happy. I wish I could just hug him once more,” she said.
If you go
What: Remembrance and Celebration of Life Mass for Vincent Petrilena
When: 11 a.m. Tuesday
Where: St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church
Contact F.T. Norton at email@example.com or 881-1213.