Lake George Tour Boat Being Tested as Capsizing Probe Continues

By | October 8, 2005

A tour boat that capsized, killing 20 elderly tourists, is being sent back out on Lake George for testing as federal investigators continue their probe into the cause.

Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, returned to Washington last Thursday but said several investigators will remain to recreate the conditions that led to the Ethan Allen’s sinking on calm waters during a fall foliage tour.

“It appears to be watertight,” Rosenker said. “We will get an answer to this. We will find out what happened.”

Part of the problem could be that the boat was never subjected to stability tests after modifications that increased its weight because state boating regulations didn’t require them, Rosenker said.

State rules also allowed the operators of the Ethan Allen to store the boat’s life jackets in a locker, even though that prevented passengers from getting to them easily. None of the 47 passengers or the captain was wearing a life jacket. Rosenker said some survivors probably grabbed the orange vests as they popped to the surface.

Also, investigators joined other tourists in a nearly identical boat on a trip like the one the Ethan Allen took, observing the crew’s actions and seeing how passengers moved around on the boat. Officials also plan to ride one of the lake’s bigger tour boats, since the captain of the Ethan Allen has said he was trying to steer out of the wake created by a passing boat when his boat capsized.

The Ethan Allen was carrying a wood-Fiberglas canopy, instead of its old canvas one, and a heavier engine than when it was first put into New York waters in 1979. From 1966, the year it left a Rhode Island boatyard, until 1979, it worked Connecticut waters.

Roger Compton, dean of the Webb Institute of naval architecture and marine engineering, said it would have been “prudent” to perform new tests after changes like those done to the Ethan Allen.

“If you’re adding weight two things happen,” Compton said. “You sink deeper in the water and, depending where you add it, you can be significantly raising the center of gravity, which is usually detrimental to stability.”

Tests on a boat similar to the Ethan Allen had to be abandoned Wednesday after the boat leaned over dangerously with only a fraction of the weight it was approved to carry.

Gov. George Pataki has said he will propose reforming New York’s boating laws to make them as strict as federal law.

Both the weight of the boat and that of the 47 passengers are part of the NTSB investigation.

The boat was near its capacity of 50 when it overturned, but that limit was based on an estimated average passenger weight of 140 pounds that the Coast Guard has used since 1960. The NTSB says that estimate should be raised to 174 pounds to reflect taller, heavier Americans.

The Detroit Free Press, analyzing driver’s license records and information from one passenger’s relative, reported that their average weight was 174 pounds. All the victims were from Michigan except one from Ohio.

Shoreline Cruises, the tour operator, released a statement saying the Ethan Allen was in compliance with all state guidelines regarding passenger limits at the time of the accident. The boat passed its most recent inspection in May.

Also, Shoreline said operating permits were restored for two larger boats it operated. The state had suspended the permits for Shoreline’s five boats after the investigation into the Ethan Allen revealed only one crew member aboard, in violation of state regulations.

The NTSB has also been told by passengers that there was no safety briefing before the cruise.

“I’m disappointed,” Rosenker said.

Pataki’s promised reforms would include mandatory alcohol and drug testing for a captain involved in an accident.

In New York, no such test can be given unless police have a probable cause. Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland said he conducted field tests on Capt. Richard Paris, 74, and was satisfied that the retired state trooper had not been drinking.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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