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I-Team Exclusive: Mother Seeks Justice After Daughter’s Drowning During Hurricane Irene

(credit: CBS) Walt Hunter
Eyewitness News Reporter Walt Hunter is one of the market's ...
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By Walt Hunter

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Speaking out for the first time, on the second anniversary of Hurricane Irene, the mother of a 20-year-old who drowned that stormy night says it was human error, not the hurricane that caused her tragic death.

Celena Sylvestri, a talented musician and vocalist, who played five instruments, and was about to begin a career teaching music to children, died when her car was swept away by a wall of water along Route 40 in Salem County.

In a lawsuit filed by Celena’s mother, her attorney, Tom Sheridan, claims a decision to open the floodgate of a dam nearby, sent millions of gallons of water cascading toward Route 40, but no one closed the road, or warned drivers.

Sylvestri trapped in her car, repeatedly dialed “911” pleading for help, as her car was washed off the highway, deep into a nearby woods, under 16 feet of water.

In a sad irony, emergency workers, called to rescue Celena, found a second motorist clinging for his life to a nearby tree. He was saved.

Celena’s mother, Kathryn Van Orden, says after two years she has never received an explanation or apology for what happened to her daughter. More importantly, she says, on this sad anniversary she has heard nothing about reforms that would prevent this from happening to someone else.

Most municipalities and agencies named in the lawsuit, and contacted by CBS 3, declined comment. However, the solicitor for the Borough of Woodstown says, in regard to the town, there doesn’t “appear to be a legal basis for liability.”

The Counsel for Salem County responded that New Jersey’s Tort Claims Act, in large part, protects municipal officials making emergency decisions from lawsuits.

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