Sheriff's report released on Lake George boat accident

02/03/06 12:00AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) Last October, 20 elderly tourists died when the Ethan Allen tour boat overturned on Lake George.

On Friday, the Warren County, New York, sheriff released his report on the incident. His investigation indicates that the wake of another boat may have been a factor. He also revealed that there were concerns from the start about how many people were on the boat. But the sheriff does not see cause for criminal charges.

VPR's Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) The massive, three-volume document contains dozens of survivor and eyewitness accounts. It includes a formal statement by the Ethan Allen's captain Richard Paris, made public for the first time.

Paris said that waves from a larger tour boat, the Mohican, caused the Ethan Allen to tip as he steered into a turn. Twenty of the boat's forty-seven passengers died when the boat capsized. Most were senior citizens from Michigan,

The report contains conflicting information from the captain as to when he last consumed alcohol- several days earlier or the night before.

But Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland says that's irrelevant to the criminal investigation.

(Cleveland) "He gave conflicting info when he spoke to us and when he spoke to the NTSB. But both are irrelevant to us as far as a criminal investigation in that we're concerned what his condition was at the time of the accident. And based on interviews with several different police officers, there was never any kind of indication that he had any alcohol or drug impairment."

(Keese) The National Transportation Board, which is still investigating the accident's cause, is looking into overcrowding as a possible contributing factor.

The 40-foot vessel was technically within its passenger limit. But several witnesses said the Ethan Allen seemed unusually full. Sheriff Cleveland:

(Cleveland) "There was a discussion among the passengers, the captain and the people that own the Shoreline Cruises about how many people were on. There were a couple people from the tour group that elected not to get on because they thought there were already too many people on it, and they in fact did not go on."

(Keese) Cleveland said the incident did not meet the threshold for criminal negligence. He said the boat had gone out often with comparable loads.

But he said it might affect civil cases, which have different evidence requirements. At least a dozen lawsuits have been filed against the captain and the owner, Shoreline Cruises Incorporated.

According to the report, other witnesses remarked that the Ethan Allen's bow seemed low in the water. Annual inspection documents repeatedly cited problems with the 40-year old bilge system, which Cleveland says was manually operated.

(Cleveland) "And today you can't buy a boat that has anything but an automatic bilge pump. So if there was any kind of issue or water was coming in and it got into the bilge it would not have automatically been pumped out. That would have been one more of many factors that would have come together to add weight."

(Keese) The National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the accident is still to come.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese.
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