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Two vacationing friends drown on trip to Florida

Longtime friends caught by riptide in Gulf of Mexico

By Maki Becker
Updated: 05/21/08 9:16 AM

Mark Gutt, John Larry and Chris Gugliuzza on a trip to the Bahamas in 2006. John and Chris drowned this week when they were caught in a riptide while vacationing in Florida.

They left Buffalo on Sunday as three happy couples — headed south for what was supposed to be a quick, relaxing vacation on the sun-soaked beaches of the Florida barrier islands.

Tuesday, they flew back as two widows and just one intact couple, all devastated by unforeseen tragedy.

On Monday, John Larry, 48, of Grand Island, and Christopher Gugliuzza, 52, of the Town of Tonawanda, drowned off a beach in Longboat Key, Fla., as they were taking an afternoon dip in the Gulf of Mexico.

An unrelenting riptide sucked the two men under water, killing them in just a matter of a couple of minutes as their friends and other swimmers desperately tried to save them, according to Florida rescuers.

“It’s unbelievable that anything like that could have happened so quickly,” said Laura Gutt, who was among the vacationing sextet, after returning to her home on Grand Island Tuesday. “It’s just horrible.”

Larry was an executive vice president and client manager in Bank of America’s global corporate and investment bank division in Buffalo and was involved in numerous local charities.

Gugliuzza was the owner of Aqua Sciences, an industrial water purification business with offices in Hamburg and the Town of Tonawanda.

The three couples had known each other for decades. Gutt’s husband, Mark, and Gugliuzza had been friends since they were 18 years old when they worked together at a water company delivering tanks for dialysis machines.

The Gutts got to know Larry and his wife, Arlene, when they all stood up for mutual friends at a wedding 25 years ago.

They were all close. The Gutts’ two sons and the Larrys’ three son would call the adults “Uncle” and “Aunt.”

For the last 16 years, since after the Larrys’ youngest of three sons, Michael, was born, the three couples had vacationed together annually. They went to Jamaica and the Bahamas, but most years, they found themselves in Florida.

They always planned their yearly trip in late May or early June: Laura Gutt’s birthday was on May 24, John and Jane Gugliuzzas’ wedding anniversary was on May 30 and the Larrys’ was on June 6.

When the couples arrived in Florida Sunday morning, they found the weather a little too overcast to hit the beach. Instead they enjoyed a lunch of grouper sandwiches and creamy chowder at a restaurant and then relaxed at the condos they’d rented just off the white sandy beach of Longboat Key, a narrow, 10-mile-long island.

Early Monday, it was still overcast and the wives headed out for a day of shopping. They returned a little after 4 p.m. just as the men started talking about whether they should go for a quick swim.

Laura Gutt recalled how John Larry had complained that he thought it was too cold for swimming. “I don’t want to go in,” he said. “I don’t even have a towel.”

Laura Gutt offered to get him one and the men headed toward the water. She went to the condo office where beach towels were available for guests and spoke for a couple of moments with a woman working there.

She said she headed back to the beach and saw a scene of panic unfolding in front of her.

Her husband later explained to her that Larry and Gugliuzza had waded out into the water ahead of him when they started to yell for help.

He quickly realized that his friends were in danger. They were caught in a riptide, being pulled into deeper water and were having trouble keeping their heads above water.

“Get on your back and go sideways!” he yelled to them. That’s how he had learned to escape from the grasp of a riptide.

Mark Gutt reached out and managed to grab Gugliuzza’s hand for just a second. But he slipped away. Gutt turned toward the beach and yelled for help. He turned back around and his friends were gone.

Other beach-goers called 911 and dashed into the water and began trying to save the men. A woman ran to the pool to get a life preserver. There she found Jane Gugliuzza. “Are those people with you?” she asked. “It looks like they’re in trouble.”

The woman ran back to the ocean and threw the ring out to the drowning men.

Mark Gutt and the other swimmers managed to drag the two men to the shore. Moments later Longboat Key Fire Rescue workers arrived. They found the two men unresponsive, with no pulse and not breathing. They began full rescue measures and continued their efforts as the two men were rushed by ambulance to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. It was too late; nothing could be done.

Tuesday morning, Arlene Larry, Jane Gugliuzza, and Mark and Laura Gutt made the heartbreaking trip back to Buffalo.

Arlene Larry was holding up as best she could, Laura Gutt said, trying to put on a brave face for her three sons: Mark, 22, a student at St. Bonaventure University; Christopher, 20, a student at John Carroll University; and Michael, 16, a student at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.

“She’s trying to be so strong for them,” Gutt said. “She’s all they’ve got. She wants them to see that she’s strong.”

Jane Gugliuzza was heartbroken and was being comforted Tuesday afternoon by a family friend, John LaFalce. “We’re in disbelief,” he said.

He remembered Gugliuzza as a kind and generous man. “He was a very giving person,” he said. “People just have nothing but great things to say about Chris.”

The Gugliuzzas did not have children, so they doted on their friends’ kids as if they were their own, Laura Gutt said.

Mark Gutt was taking the deaths of his friends especially hard, his wife said. “My husband feels he should be gone, too.”

The two widows spent Tuesday going about the sad task of making arrangements to have their husbands’ bodies flown back to Buffalo and for the funeral services.

“It’s devastating and life-changing,” Laura Gutt said. “But hopefully, as Arlene keeps saying, they’re in a better place now . . . Hopefully, we can think that way.”