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NTSB: Tour boat was overloaded

Probe of the Ethan Allen tragedy on Lake George finds that the boat could safely have held only 14

Probe of the Ethan Allen tragedy on Lake George finds that the boat could safely have held only 14

The Lake George, N.Y., tour boat Ethan Allen, which capsized in October 2005 with 20 passengers drowning, should have been carrying no more than 14 occupants, not the 48 who were on board on that calm autumn Sunday, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Read the other story in this package: Add 45 pounds per passenger, says Coast Guard

In a preliminary report, the NTSB says the tour boat, a Dyer 40 built in the 1960s, wasn’t sufficiently stable to carry four dozen men and women. The agency noted that the boat’s stability hadn’t been tested following modifications to its canopy in 1989.

“The addition and subsequent modification of a canopy changed the Ethan Allen’s stability characteristics,” the report says. “Although U.S. Coast Guard regulations and New York State’s guidance to vessel owners did not contain clear requirements pertaining to testing after modifications, the … Ethan Allen should have undergone a stability reassessment after each canopy installation and modification.”

The report says the attempt by Ethan Allen’s skipper, Richard Paris, a retired New York state trooper, “to turn the vessel into [an] oncoming wake before the capsizing was a normal reaction to the circumstances but not timely enough to be effective. …

“Because the ... Ethan Allen did not undergo stability assessments after the addition and modification of its canopies, it was certificated to carry too many passengers,” the report says. “The certificate of inspection permitted 48 passengers, but stability criteria should have limited the number to 14 passengers.”

James E. Hacker, an attorney representing a passenger and the families of two victims, says Ethan Allen’s owner, Shoreline Cruises, as well as the company that made the modifications, Scarano Boat Building Inc. of Albany N.Y., are liable in civil court, despite the lack of regulations requiring new stability testing. “Would a jury determine that it would be reasonable for them [Scarano Boat Building] to follow through and conduct a stability test or let the owner know it should be tested?” Hacker asks. He says he will attempt to “see whether we can get beyond the corporate shield” to sue the owners of both companies for personal liability. Shoreline carried insurance, but the company apparently unknowingly bought a policy that appears to have been issued fraudulently and is worthless, authorities believe.

A detailed report provided to interested parties by the NTSB states that while the original canvas canopy on Ethan Allen didn’t “meet the wind heel criteria regardless of passenger count,” the wood canopy installed by Scarano Boat Building does “meet the criteria with a reduced number of passengers. This is because the wood canopy is lower than the canvas.”

John Scarano, the company president, provided Soundings with the detailed report. He says it shows that his company’s work on the boat improved its stability. He says his company had no reason to doubt that the Coast Guard certification of Ethan Allen to carry 50 passengers was valid. Knowing that the wood canopy they installed was lower in height than the canvas canopy, he says, his company had no cause to seek a new stability test or to suggest that Shoreline have the boat retested.

Plaintiff attorney Hacker says he thinks the NTSB did a “fairly exhaustive investigation.” Experts on vessel safety and stability say they are awaiting the final NTSB report before evaluating the agency’s work. Among them is Bruce Johnson, a retired Naval Academy teacher of marine engineering and a frequent spokesman for the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, who wants to see how the NTSB came up with its calculation that Ethan Allen would have been stable with 14 passengers.

The tour boat was equipped with rows of bench seats mounted across the deck so passengers face forward. Survivors describe a scene of passengers sliding across the seats and piling up on the port side when Paris turned sharply to starboard to deal with a large wake. The movement of those bodies was followed by the capsizing to port, they say.

Johnson says the so-called “simplified stability test”— the type normally used on small passenger vessels — considers various factors, such as a load shift or the impact of waves or wind, separately, whereas the combined effects can be more significant. “If a wind or wave tilts the boat, the people slide at very small angles,” increasing the vessel’s instability, he notes.

A group Johnson heads within SNAME will push for a change in regulations that would penalize boats like Ethan Allen that have bench seats. The group would like to see armrests or other restraints that would keep passengers in their seats, he says. “If you’re interested in safety, you pay attention to people slipping around and tipping over.”

Richard C. Hiscock, a marine safety advocate who has worked with congressional staffers on vessel safety legislation, says he is disappointed that the preliminary NTSB report doesn’t address the Coast Guard’s responsibility in certifying boats like Ethan Allen. At one time, Hiscock says, federal statutes limited the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction over small passenger vessels to “navigable waters.” Lake George, which has no navigable connection to an ocean, at that time didn’t come under Coast Guard supervision, he says.

A reading of current statutes, modified in 1983, “appears to give the Coast Guard jurisdiction to inspect vessels such as the Ethan Allen, which are operating in ‘non-navigable’ waters,” Hiscock says. Following the Lake George tragedy last autumn, the Coast Guard said it had no authority over vessels on the lake.

In the preliminary report, the NTSB doesn’t discuss the Coast Guard’s authority. It criticizes New York State’s “reliance on manufacturers’ capacity plate data to determine maximum passenger limits on public vessels carrying more than six passengers for hire.” The report notes that “New York State public vessel operators do not have a simple and ready means such as a mark on the hull to determine whether their vessels are overloaded.”

The NTSB credits New York’s efforts to address the safety of public vessels. “If implemented, [they] will address issues identified in the accident investigation,” the report states.