Witnesses: Tour boat looked overloaded - Soundings Online

Witnesses: Tour boat looked overloaded

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A sheriff’s report on the Ethan Allen tragedy on Lake George, N.Y., confirms suspicions, but no charges are filed

A sheriff’s report on the Ethan Allen tragedy on Lake George, N.Y., confirms suspicions, but no charges are filed

Many witnesses — both seasoned mariners and flatland tourists alike — thought they saw something odd in the list of the Lake George, N.Y., tour boat Ethan Allen on the afternoon of Oct. 2, 2005, according to statements recorded in a report by the Warren County, N.Y., sheriff.

Their reactions ranged from crude jokes to a refusal to board the doomed Dyer 40, but their instincts were dead on. Within minutes the Ethan Allen had capsized, and 20 passengers who had planned on a pleasant early autumn cruise had drowned.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the tragedy, has yet to determine what factor or factors led to the capsize of the 40-foot powerboat, aboard which a captain and 47 passengers had begun their tour. With the release of a three-volume, 530-page incident report that includes written statements of survivors and witnesses, Sheriff Larry J. Cleveland drew no official conclusions of his own on the cause, and refused to lodge criminal charges.

Yet while the mostly elderly members of a tour bus group from Michigan waited at 2:30 p.m. to board the Ethan Allen, a handful of individuals were already growing wary. And in the half-hour on the water before the boat capsized, other boaters suspected the vessel was seriously overloaded. Their observations are pointedly similar, and they echo the private opinion of Cleveland.

“When the NTSB report comes out,” he says, “you’re going to find the boat has considerable more weight [than was safe].”

Weight distribution

Nancy A. Drobet, 79, of Trenton, Mich., was among about 50 women and men who lined up on the Shoreline Cruises dock near the south end of Lake George that Sunday afternoon to board the Ethan Allen. The group had a ratio of about five women to one man and an average age of 72, although their ages ranged from 51 to 87. There were no wheelchairs. Everyone in front of Drobet who boarded had walked aboard the tour boat, some with canes.

Drobet noticed that most members of her group were taking seats on the port side. Passenger seats were like park benches, facing forward and bolted to the deck. On the port side, the benches could accommodate three passengers. An aisle ran the length of the boat between those benches and the ones on the starboard side, each of which held two passengers.

“Look at the boat tilting on one side,” Drobet heard another passenger say. “Someone should move to the other side.”

“I looked at the boat and saw that it was slanting in or tipping to the side where everyone was sitting,” Drobet writes in a statement to the sheriff’s office. Someone asked a Shoreline employee whether the group would get a larger boat. “No, this is it,” she remembers him saying. “I guess they thought the boat they gave us was good enough for seniors,” she writes.

It wasn’t good enough for Drobet. “As I stood on the shore looking at the tipping boat, I decided it wasn’t safe to be on, so I didn’t get on it,” she writes.

“I wasn’t comfortable the way the boat leaned at least 30 degrees [to port],” writes Lawrence J. Mahalak, 79, an engineer from Howell, Mich. “After people started going to the right side the boat leveled out.” And Mahalak stayed aboard.

As the group boarded, Carol Charlton, 58, of Ontario, the tour bus guide, heard an animated discussion between the boat’s captain, Richard Paris, and another Shoreline employee about the capacity of the boat being 50 passengers.

“After that discussion, two heavy-set women decided not to go on the boat,” Charlton writes in her statement. “They were joking about their sizes and what the extra weight would do to the boat. At one point, I had decided not to go due to crowding, but people were telling me to get on, that I was skinny and wouldn’t take up much space. As I got on … the boat was completely full.”

Russell L. Quick, who had been on the bus tour since the previous Tuesday, looked around the Ethan Allen once it was full. “I could clearly see that our weight was not distributed well,” he writes. “The boat’s front was way down in the water, and it kind of listed to the left. I looked around just out of curiosity, and I could not see anywhere obvious where there would be life jackets stored.” Nor, others say, had an announcement been made telling passengers where the life jackets were.

Paris, a retired New York State police trooper who was three weeks away from his 75th birthday, stood at the helm at the aft part of the boat at about 2:35 that afternoon and maneuvered Ethan Allen away from the Shoreline dock, heading north at a leisurely pace of less than 10 knots. This was a fall foliage tour, and on the boat Paris was the tour guide. He took up a microphone and began talking to his captive audience, telling them about the mansions along the shore. His course would take them along the west side of the lake, then back down the east side.

Witness accounts

Mahalak, who didn’t like the boat’s list from the beginning, still cast a suspicious eye. “The boat seemed very nose-heavy when we started out and was listed to the left,” he writes. He thought the Ethan Allen was 20 to 30 percent overloaded.

But most of the passengers were delighted with the cruise. The water was calm and the weather beautiful, with the air a comfortable 70 degrees, 2 degrees above the temperature of the lake. The group had spent Saturday night in a New Hampshire motel after a day of sightseeing. The bus ride to Lake George had been non-stop.

“I was watching the beautiful homes on the shore and listening to the guide,” recalls Mary Jane Osak, 79, of Trenton, Mich.

“The ride was nice, and the water was calm,” writes Lillian Milek, 74, of Livonia, Mich.

Margaret Kidon, tour director among the seniors from Trenton, was sitting on the port side on one of two benches that ran along the gunwales at the bow. Her back was to the water, and she looked east, across the deck and out onto the lake beyond the starboard bench. “The water was very, very calm,” she writes. “I noticed a speedboat go past us, and I got excited because I hoped it would give us some waves so that the boat would rock back and forth a little bit. I enjoy that.”

As Paris steered north and his passengers looked toward shore, people on the water and ashore stared back at what to them appeared to be a curious sight. Lucas A. Smock, 28, was among those observing the Ethan Allen. He was heading south aboard his own boat with his wife and two friends when they passed the tour boat.

“The bow was sitting lower than the stern. I knew that it just didn’t look right,” he writes in his statement. “My wife, Kelly, commented that the Ethan had too many people on it. Earlier that day, we had seen the Ethan with only two passengers, and we joked that the overload this time would cover [operating] costs for the day.”

Dive instructor Richard L. Morin, 48, was leading a group open-water training dive from Hearthstone State Park when the Ethan Allen passed. “We waved to the passengers, and I made a comment to fellow instructor Chris Hubbell that I had never seen that many people on the Ethan Allen before,” he writes. “He responded back with something to the effect that it looked overloaded. I pointed out to him that the bow section was very low in the water and the stern was very high in the water. I have seen this boat on a weekly basis for years, and I have never seen the boat sit like that in the water, or that full.” Morin states that when the boat passed, the passengers all seemed to be seated. “They were smiling and waving back at us.”

Michael R. Stauffacher, 53, was having lunch in the Boathouse Restaurant, which perches on piers above Lake George, and he looked to his left out a window to see the Ethan Allen pass by. “It appeared to me that the bow of the boat was down,” he writes. He told a companion, “Look at that! There are a lot of people on that boat!” It appeared to Stauffacher that the passengers were seated more toward the bow.

At just about the same time that Stauffacher was commenting about the seating arrangement, Joyce A. Clouthier and her husband, Larry Steinhart, were motoring south with their dogs on their boat. The large lake excursion boat Mohican had just passed, and Clouthier had picked up one of the dogs because they were riding over that boat’s wake. Then they saw the Ethan Allen.

“At that point, my husband commented on how full the Ethan Allen was. I agreed with that,” Clouthier writes. “My seat was facing the rear of the boat. I continued watching the Ethan Allen. I saw it turning to the east. I saw, almost immediately from the turn, that the Ethan had lost control and it was starting to tip.”

“Underneath the boat”

Paris, at the helm of the tour boat, had been caught by surprise. Just south of Cramer Point, he started to steer to starboard to cross the lake. At just that point, a wave — Paris thought it was the wake of the Mohican, which had passed offshore also on a northerly route — hit his boat on the starboard quarter. “The entire boat then tipped to the left,” he told investigators, “and just kept right on going.”

“All of a sudden, I felt the boat rocking back and forth violently,” remembers Eunice R. Stevens, 67, of Sterling Heights, Mich. “I looked back and saw the driver frantically turning the wheel, and I didn’t understand what was happening. People started slamming into me as the boat turned over.”

Russell Quick was among the passengers who then saw water pour onto the deck as the port side of the boat dipped under water. People who had been sitting on the two-seat benches on the starboard side were losing their seating. Tour guide Carol Charlton slid to the deck.

Lucille Jane O’Brien, 77, of Trenton was traveling with her friend Jean Fali, and they both were on a starboard bench. “The boat tipped … and Jean came right down on top of me,” she recalls.

As the passengers fell from their seats to the port side of the boat and the water rose above the deck there, Helen Marie Niles, 77, of Whitmore Lake, Mich., heard screaming. In an instant, Paris and all his passengers were in the water, most of them caught beneath the Ethan Allen.

Charlton has flashbacks of the capsize. There was a whiff of diesel fumes, then there was the black water in which she was submerged. Charlton is not a swimmer. She remembers “feeling something hard and pushing myself up. I saw light, then I surfaced and clung to the boat with several other people.”

Helen Niles found herself “submerged under water, underneath the boat.” She was able to swim to the surface.

Margaret Kidon, the leader of the Trenton group, was under the overturned boat, as well. “It took a couple of tries, but I finally was able to swim out from under the boat to the surface,” she recalls.

Frederick M. Metz, 77, had been looking around and talking with his wife, Mary Helen, 73, with whom he shared a starboard bench. “I felt the boat start to tip to the left, everyone slid to the left, and the boat began to tip right over. I held my wife’s arm, but I ended up being thrown into the water. I felt others hitting me. I came up from under the water, and I grabbed a rail on the side of the boat.” Metz then saw the “belly of the boat come up and roll over. I looked in and I saw my wife in the boat. I could tell she had gotten stuck in the boat, and I saw that she had died.”

The aftermath

Sheriff Cleveland and his report have come under attack in New York and Michigan for failing to charge anyone in connection with the case. Ronald Zdrojewski of Redford, Mich., has begun an Internet-based campaign to boycott Lake George and Warren County businesses in hope of persuading residents in that area to put pressure on officials to bring charges. He has used the American Association of Retired Persons message boards and other sites devoted to senior citizens to spread the word of his effort.

Cleveland’s report “smelled like a cover-up,” says Zdrojewski, whose wife’s parents, William and Caryl Gilson of Livonia, Mich., both died in the accident. “That’s why I decided the only way I could get at them was a boycott of tourism.”

Enrico Schaefer, a Traverse City, Mich., lawyer who says he has no clients from the Ethan Allen case, has devoted part of his firm’s Web site (www.traverselegal.com ) to the story, and has called Cleveland’s report “a farce.”

“The sheriff really didn’t do an investigation,” he says, adding that in his opinion “there was clear recklessness in this case, which is something which would possibly result in [a charge of criminal negligence].

“I appreciate that litigation is often not the best way to obtain change, but I am a firm believer that the Internet offers possibilities beyond what litigation can do,” Schaefer says.

James E. Hacker, an Albany, N.Y., lawyer representing families and victims, says he intends to pursue a case against several defendants, including the owner of the excursion boat Mohican and the company that built a new canopy on the Ethan Allen. But he believes the sheriff’s report was thorough. He rejects the idea of whether this was a criminal act, whether “someone intended to cause harm.”

“No one intended this boat to go over. It’s a pure case of negligence,” he says.

Reports recently surfaced that the owner of the Ethan Allen had bought bogus insurance. “I’ve known for a couple of months that the insurance was questionable,” says Hacker.

According to the Texas Department of Insurance, several individuals identified by the owner of Shoreline Cruises as having been involved in selling insurance to the firm have a history of insurance fraud in that state that has resulted in fines and the loss of licenses for some agents. (An attorney for Shoreline who was handling questions for the company couldn’t be reached for this report.)

Spurred by the Ethan Allen case, New York Gov. George E. Pataki in March proposed legislation that would tighten regulations on the operations of tour boat companies, including their insurance. He earlier had proposed a law requiring immediate drug and alcohol testing of boat operators involved in fatal accidents. Cleveland reportedly allowed more than a day to pass before Paris was tested.

Under Pataki’s proposal, owners of boats like the Ethan Allen would have to:

• provide proof of insurance coverage up to $10 million as part of an annual marine inspection. (The Ethan Allen, under the proposal, would have had to carry $5 million. Currently the state doesn’t require any insurance on tour boats.)

• have either radio or phone communications on each boat, and radar on boats that carry 49 or more passengers

• notify state marine inspectors of any modifications that could affect the stability of a boat

• assure that the full crew complement required by the vessel’s certificate of inspection be on board during voyages.

“We have worked to make New York’s boating laws among the strongest in the nation,” Pataki says in a press release. “But we must do everything we can to prevent another tragedy like the Ethan Allen from occurring.”

Sheriff Cleveland points to a list of factors that he thinks contributed to the tragedy:

• While the rated capacity of the boat was 50 passengers, that was established under a Coast Guard assumption of 140 pounds for each passenger. The Federal Aviation Administration assumes each airline passenger weighs 174 pounds, which for the Ethan Allen’s 47 passengers would mean an additional 1,598 pounds. “The passengers were way over weight,” Cleveland says. The average weight was “easily in the 190s” and perhaps more than 200 pounds, he says.

• A canopy made of pipe and canvas had been replaced with a canopy constructed of plywood and regular wood for frames, with sheeted Plexiglas, “which changed the gross weight and gave it more top weight,” says Cleveland.

• The engine had been replaced, resulting in a different engine room configuration. In the process, counterweights were placed in the bow to even the boat’s trim. The impact of those weights — more than 1,000 pounds — was never assessed.

• The port and starboard placement of passengers was uneven.

• There was no automatic float switch for the bilge pump. “They pumped it out in the morning,” Cleveland says, then the boat made several trips during the day. “If water were coming into the boat on any previous trip, it would be going into the bilge and wouldn’t be pumped out. We know the water coming into the boat for cooling; some of it was coming into the bilge” at a rate of a 10th of a gallon per minute from a leak in the pump. “When you start adding it up, that weighs a considerable amount. We think that played a role, too.” (Experts explain that only a few gallons of water sloshing in the bilge — a so-called free-surface effect — can reduce a boat’s stability.)

Cleveland discounts the impact of the wake from the Mohican. The two boats have shared the lake for decades, he says. Nor does he think the number of passengers was a record. “They carried a lot of people a lot of times,” he says. “I don’t think it would be unusual for them to carry the maximum capacity. It was unusual they carried the maximum number of people who are way beyond the 140 pound [rating].”

The sheriff notes that the NTSB is considering numerous factors in determining the cause of the accident, including the height of the deck. Several naval architects have noted that the deck’s placement even with the boat’s gunwale raises the center of gravity higher than if the passengers were seated lower in the hull, which could destabilize the boat.