Boating accident in Groton cuts short 2 promising lives

At left is Joseph Grzelak, pictured in this undated photo with Gunner. To the right is Joseph Formica. Both men died Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, after a boating accident in Groton. (Photos courtesy of Anne Murtha Grzelak and Evan Rowe, respectively)
At left is Joseph Grzelak, pictured in this undated photo with Gunner. To the right is Joseph Formica. Both men died Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, after a boating accident in Groton. (Photos courtesy of Anne Murtha Grzelak and Evan Rowe, respectively)

Groton — Joseph Grzelak of Griswold had worked his way up the ranks at Electric Boat, achieving “charge man” status at the tender age of 29.

Joseph Formica, 33, of East Haddam, had fathered a son with his wife, Shaun: 2-year-old Giovanni, “the apple of his eye.”

This weekend, a tragic boating accident in Mumford Cove put an end to the young men’s promising futures and left a third man, 31-year-old Justin Besade of Uncasville, forever changed.

According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, officials were called to Mumford Cove just after 9 a.m. Saturday, when a resident spotted a swamped and unoccupied 16-foot motorboat. DEEP said three men had been on the boat, hunting waterfowl.

Responders on Saturday found two of the men in the water and the third on land. Only Besade survived the incident, which remains under investigation.

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said both Grzelak and Formica died of accidental drowning.

On Monday, the parents, friends and coworkers of the deceased took time from their hectic days to share stories about their loved ones.

“I don’t want my son to be forever known as the boat crash victim,” Anne Murtha Grzelak explained. “I want people to know what a good man he was.”

Murtha Grzelak described Joey as her rock, a person his 25-year-old brother and 19-year-old twin sisters could look up to.

In text messages, she said, his friends have told her they became the men they are because of Joey’s example.

“I can’t imagine having any other kind of son,” she said. “I know I’m his mother, but I can’t think of anything negative to say.”

According to Ken Rowland, the first vice president of the Marine Draftsmen’s Association, the late Grzelak had worked with the company for about 10 years. An electrical designer, he recently had taken on the role of charge man. Rowland said that means Grzelak was his supervisor’s right hand man and helped manage the workload of the 14 people in his group.

“You don’t find too many charge men who get to that position in 10 years,” Rowland said. “It was a quick ascent. (His death) leaves a big void.”

Murtha Grzelak said her son, armed with an infectious laugh, fell in love with hunting at an early age. He met Besade through work at EB, and the pair quickly discovered their common interest. They hung out frequently, Murtha Grzelak said, and not just to hunt. But duck hunting became Joey’s favorite — he went almost every weekend. 

“They were avid,” Murtha Grzelak said of her son and Besade, adding that Besade has garnered sponsorships for his capabilities in waterfowl hunting. “They had been to that very same spot many times. It’s just an unfortunate situation.”

Besade, released from the hospital Saturday afternoon after initially being listed in serious condition, couldn't be reached for this story. Rowland said Besade works at EB as a pipe designer.

According to posts in various Connecticut waterfowl hunting forums, several duck hunters went out Saturday morning. Luke Wiggins, an employee of the Groton-based Helen III, and two of his friends were among them.

According to Wiggins, he and his friends spent the morning out on his 19-foot boat, but headed for shore as the winds picked up — they reached nearly 35 mph — and the tide changed. Wiggins said the trio ran into the search for Grzelak, Formica and Besade on their way back and assisted the Coast Guard in retrieving Besade from the shore.

Murtha Grzelak said the emergency room doctor told her the water temperature was perhaps the biggest issue: It was 37 degrees Saturday morning.

Between drop-ins and funeral arrangements, the distraught mother hasn’t had much time for reminiscing.

On Sunday alone, more than 80 people visited her home: high school friends, college friends, members of the community. She has more than 150 Facebook messages to attend to. Her fridge is overflowing.

Though Murtha Grzelak is a Taftville native, Griswold is where Joey and his siblings grew up. And for its support, she said, “Griswold rocks." 

“The outpouring of support has kept me afloat,” she said. “He was as good as it gets. I want to tell the world that I was honored to be his mother, and feel like I will be till the day I die — just in a different way.”

‘Pretty close to perfect’

The connection between Joseph Formica and the two men he was with Saturday wasn’t immediately clear. What was clear, however, was that his loss was felt across Connecticut.

Bill Garrity, Formica’s former Xavier High School football coach, described the star linebacker and team captain as “the type of kid that any parent would want their son to be.”

Garrity, who now teaches religion at the school, was dean of students at the time. He had kept in touch with Formica over the years and just bumped into him and his “big smile” a couple of weeks ago.

“He was true good, to his core, and he’s going to be missed,” Garrity said. “That outpouring of support you’re seeing? It’s because it’s Joey.”

Evan Rowe, who also befriended Formica in high school, said the outdoor enthusiast “died doing something he loved.”

“The man would radiate just at the mere mention of going fishing,” Rowe said Monday, adding that he and Formica always hit Opening Day of fishing season together. “If living in a duck blind or sporting waders to the office were socially acceptable, he’d probably do it.”

Rowe lauded Formica’s loyalty and said he “can’t think of anything more tragic to strike his beautiful young wife and burgeoning family.”

Yolanda Sullivan, a longtime family friend, said Formica was thoughtful, always texting her on her birthdays and Mother’s Day, even though she wasn’t technically his mother.

“They say that nobody’s perfect, but he was pretty close to perfect,” she said. “You felt good when you were around him.”

Through tears, Heidi DiNino, Formica’s mother, said her son had a fishing pole in his hand as soon as he could hold one. In his youth, he spent his summers at the beaches in Old Lyme. He was one of the most cautious people she knew, and he was caring, too.

“If he saw a person sitting on a bench crying, he would sit next to them till they stopped,” she said. “I can’t even tell you where the goodness in this kid’s heart came from.”

Above all, those who spoke on his behalf agreed, Formica’s love for his 2-year-old, Giovanni, radiated.

“It’s just unbelievable for us,” DiNino said of the loss.

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects information about a boat that had been on the water around the same time as Saturday's double-fatal accident. It also corrects the ages of Joseph Grzelak and Justin Besade, which the state DEEP listed incorrectly.

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