Court: Authorities not responsible for N.J. woman’s drowning during hurricane

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Celena J. Sylvestri drowned in her car before rescuers could reach her in the swift-moving floodwaters unleashed by the opening of floodgates in Salem County during Hurricane Irene in 2011.


On Wednesday, the Third Circuit U.S. District Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed with lower court decisions that government agencies were not responsible for her death.

On Aug. 28, 2011, the 20-year-old woman left her apartment after it lost power to find a safer location. Her Honda Accord stalled in the rising waters on U.S. 40 near Sharptown and was swept off the roadway. Sylvestri was able to call 911 about 1:40 a.m. to say she was trapped with water up to her neck. Her body was found about eight hours later, NJ.com reported.


Kathryn M. Van Orden, Sylvestri’s mother, sued on behalf of her daughter’s estate, claiming authorities did not protect Sylvestri from the hazards the intense hurricane presented and made a “state-created” danger when they opened the floodgates at Memorial Lake in Woodstown upstream.

A file image released by NOAA Saturday, Aug 27, 2011, shows Hurricane Irene. (AP Photo/NOAA)

Van Orden named the Borough of Woodstown, Salem County, the State of New Jersey, the Salem County Sheriff,  New Jersey State Police, Pilesgrove Township, the Woodstown Police Department and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Dam Safety and others in the suit that was initially filed in the Salem County civil courts and transferred to federal court, NJ.com said.





Sylvestri, the third Circuit concluded “was a member of the general public who wandered randomly onto the path of danger,” NJ.com reported.

The court said there had been no previous problem opening floodgates prior to big storms and that the volume of Irene’s waters overtopped the dam. Sylvestri was also aware of a ban that directed all non-emergency vehicles to stay off the roads, but she chose to leave home, the court said.

A 2010 graduate of Salem High School, Sylvestri, a Norristown native, loved playing guitar and had an excellent musical voice. She worked as a waitress at Cracker Barrel in Pennsville while attending Salem County Community College. She played for the college basketball team and was almost finished with a degree in music and education, according to  a post on findagrave.com.
























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