By Amy Nicole Tangel
The survivor of a horrific boating accident that killed her young daughter 15 years ago, has, through incredible strength and perseverance, become a leader across Long Island using her strong voice to advocate for boating safety.
Gina Lieneck, who has made it her life’s mission to make positive changes concerning boating safety, saw her hard work pay off when Brianna’s Law went into effect in New York State on January 1, 2020. After years of tears and tireless hours of work by the Deer Park, N.Y., resident, new requirements for boat operators may prevent what happened to her daughter from ever happening again.
Under Brianna’s Law, which was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on August 6, 2019, all boaters operating a power boat; including sail boats with auxiliary power must complete a boating safety course. According to the law, all operators of power boats are required to take the course by 2025.
Prior to this, boating faced limited regulations. “There’s not many laws to boating. Not even a reckless boating ticket; nothing,” Lieneck said.
It was the summer of 2005, when Gina and her 11-year-old daughter Brianna were enjoying a day of boating with the family when she said a boat came crashing into their boat full-throttle outside of Bayshore, N.Y., on the Great South Bay. The out-of-control boat ripped off their boat canopy which collapsed on Brianna and killed her. Gina also suffered serious physical trauma from the accident and was devastated to find out days later from a visiting doctor, who didn’t know she was Brianna’s mother, that her daughter had passed away.
The men occupying the boat that hit Gina’s had spent the day on Fire Island attending a company party when they decided to take a personal boat home instead of taking the ferry. Gina said the vessel of four dropped off one passenger in Patchogue, and then blindly made their way towards them. She said the boaters were lost in the bay for two hours prior to the accident. Alcohol was on their breath, but due to the lack of Boating While Intoxicated (BWI) laws, the blood alcohol level of the operator was not tested until six hours had passed and charges could not be upheld.
For Gina, Brianna’s Law is just the beginning of what she has set out to accomplish. Gina said she has been haunted by reliving the night on the boat right before the accident when she said Brianna kept asking her if she could come sit by her and nudging her like most 11-year-old girls do. Gina refused to let Brianna sit by her fearing for her safety. Thinking she was being a protective mother, Gina argued with Brianna, and the last words she spoke to her daughter were stern words to go sit down. She has vowed to not stop until BWI has stricter consequences, and she said she has promised Brianna she will never give up.
“I am not done yet, because there are many more laws to be passed,” she said.
During the first two years following her daughter’s passing, Gina said she became reclusive and was stuck between two worlds. She said she couldn’t go to work, could barely make it through the day, and had a hard time being a parent emotionally to her older daughter while being overridden by grief. The day came though, when Gina said she woke up one morning and told herself it was time to get back to work. She wanted to make things right for her daughter who was still here and decided to take action.
She opened her own business, Breezy’s Field of Dreams, an indoor sporting facility and, she said she worked a part-time job at BOCES which helped her grow and learn to be social again. Ultimately, she said getting back to work taught her it was okay to smile. Gina said she realized she had a lot to smile for. She had her daughter Danyelle, and she was going to make things right by talking to and supporting other families who had gone through similar tragedies.
“A lot of families reach out to me that have lost children and I tell them, ‘Don’t make the same mistake I did; you have other children.’ I try and take my learning experience and help other families that are feeling this way,” she said.
While Gina said it has been hard to bring anything to the floor of the New York State Senate this session with COVID, and things have had to be temporarily set aside, she has continued to move forward doing what she has done for years by working to help those in need in her community and across the island.
In 2018, Gina was a Community Service Award Recipient in the Town of Babylon’s 29th Annual Women’s History Month Program, and in 2019, Gina was honored as one of 18 receiving the Suffolk County Women of Distinction award as well as being named County-Wide Woman of Distinction. Gina has most recently been selected as a 2020 Woman of Distinction honoree by long-time supporter Senator Phil Boyle.
Gina said she never imagined in her life she would receive a woman of distinction award and her focus has been on simply being grateful for the communities that have been lifting her up from the beginning. There were days she said she remembers when she just kept falling, and the good people of her community kept lifting her and her family back up.
“On my darkest days and my family’s darkest days the community was here to help us, so I feel like I need to pay it forward,” she said.
Paying forward this holiday season, Gina is busily working on her annual Thanksgiving food drive collecting items for dinners and collaborating with friends and members of her community to sponsor families for meals in need. For the past 14 years, Gina has held an annual holiday toy drive in memory of Brianna. Last year, she said she collected almost 300 toys for children in need and has set a goal to double that this year. In a letter written by Gina to commence this year’s toy drive she wrote, “There’s no better feeling in the world than knowing that we all helped put a smile on so many children’s faces Christmas morning.”
At the end of the day, Gina said she often thinks about what Brianna would be like today. It brings her to tears to think about the milestones that will never be, but she fondly remembers how her daughter was “a character” and said she made her presence known everywhere she went, especially when she routinely walked on the softball field asking everyone, “How are you doing?
“She made her mark here. In her 11 short years, she made sure she let everyone know who she was,” Gina said.
For more information on how to donate to the Brianna Lieneck Annual Memorial Toy Drive please call Gina at 631-872-9764.