The Indiana man charged in the July death of his 18-month-old granddaughter who fell from a cruise ship docked in Puerto Rico says he was in “disbelief” and “shock” when he realized what had happened.
Speaking to CBS This Morning in his first sit-down interview after being charged with negligent homicide, the grandfather, Salvatore Anello, described holding the little girl against a railing adjacent to what he thought was a bank of closed windows in a children’s play area of the Royal Caribbean ship. But as she slipped from his grasp, the girl fell through an open window onto a dock 10 stories below.
“I remember trying to find her on the floor and then I saw her fall, I saw her fall, I saw her fall and I was just in disbelief,” said Anello. “And I was like ‘Oh my God.’ And I think for a while I was in shock and I was just standing there.”
“And then I just remember screaming that I thought there was glass. I thought there was glass. I still say it to myself, it’s just, I kind of relive it all the time and I just thought there was glass there. I don’t know what else to tell you,” he said.
The parents of the girl, Chloe Wiegand, have said they don’t blame Anello for what they and the family’s attorney, Michael Winkleman, say was a tragic accident and not a crime. Winkleman says closed-circuit video of the incident backs up their assertion, and “is consistent with [Anello’s] version of events since day one.”
Prosecutors who charged Anello in October allege he “negligently exposed the child to the abyss through a window on the 11th floor,” according to a statement from the Puerto Rico Department of Justice obtained by PEOPLE.
“The Department of Justice does not discuss the evidence to be presented at trial prior to the proceedings,” Puerto Rico Attorney General Dennise N. Longo Quiñones said in a separate statement to PEOPLE. “We remain confident, however, that all of the evidence will prove Salvatore Anello’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Anello has not entered a plea to the charge against him, but Winkleman says he intends to fight the charge. Anello made a court appearance Wednesday, and briefly spoke to NBC about the charge against him, saying, “They can’t do anything worse to me than has already happened.”
The window from which Chloe fell was part of a large wall of sliding windows — and Winkleman says all windows were closed except for the one in question. Winkleman says Chloe liked to bang on glass panels at her older brother’s hockey games, and when she went to bang on what she thought was a closed window, she fell.
Winkleman showed PEOPLE two grainy video clips of the tragedy. In one, Anello is seen propping Chloe up on the railing on her feet, then on her bottom, before she disappears from view. In another, Anello is seen dropping to the floor after Chloe falls out the window.
Winkleman says there was a significant enough distance between the railing and the window so that Anello, who is seen leaning over the railing in the video before Chloe fell, wouldn’t necessarily have known it was open.
After Anello was charged in October, Winkleman told PEOPLE, “It’s like pouring salt in [the family’s] open wounds. They’re in the beginning stages of a lengthy process that is grief. They were trying to put their lives back together, and you throw this into the mix and it puts them back to square one.”
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Winkleman says the family plans to file a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean. “The windows were not compliant with window-fall prevention codes, designed to prevent children from falling out of windows,” he says.
Chloe’s parents, Alan and Kimberly Wiegand, defended Anello in an interview with the Today show in July.
“He was extremely hysterical. The thing that he has repeatedly told us is, ‘I believed that there was glass,’” Kimberly said. “He will cry over and over and over. At no point ever — ever — has [he] ever put our kids in danger.”
“[Chloe] was his best friend,” Alan added.
Royal Caribbean did not comment on the possible lawsuit by the Wiegand family. In a previous statement to PEOPLE, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean said the company is “deeply saddened” by the incident, adding, “We’ve made our Care Team available to assist the family with any resources they need. Out of respect for their privacy, we do not plan to comment further on the incident.”