NTSB reports conclusions on Lake George tour boat accident

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(Host) The National Transportation Safety Board today issued its conclusions on a Lake George tour boat accident that killed 20 people last fall.

The NTSB said the Ethan Allen had far too many passengers on board, even though it was carrying the number of people for which it was certified.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) Federal investigators say the Ethan Allen tour boat was unfit for passengers 20 years ago when it first entered New York waters.

(Henry) “Through witness interviews, testing of the vessel, reconstruction of its history and its stability study, a picture of the Ethan Allen emerged, and it showed that there was a potential for an accident. The vessel lacked the stability that everybody assumed it had.”

(Keese) Robert Henry is one of several staff investigators who addressed the National Transportation Safety Board at a meeting webcast from Washington DC.

He says the tour boat was licensed by the Coast Guard for 50 people shortly after it was built in Connecticut in the 1960s. It was never retested for stability and weight capacity when a metal-framed awning was added.

(Henry) “The Ethan Allen’s stability and passenger capacity was not reestablished at the time, nor was there a clear Coast Guard requirement to do so.”

(Keese) Henry says the awning made the boat unstable with any number of passengers.

In 1989, after the current owners moved the boat to Lake George, they replaced the awning with a wooden enclosure that actually made the Ethan Allen more stable.

Officials say it could have been approved for 14 passengers then. But it was never re-tested again because New York State law didn’t require it.

The boat had 48 mostly elderly passengers when it capsized and sank. Acting NTSB chairman Mark Rosenkerr says the accident occurred when the captain tried to steer into a wake from one or more passing boats.

(Rosenkerr) “The Ethan Allen Capsized as a result of insufficient stability, which made it unable to right itself from the combined forces of a passing wave or waves, a sharp turn and the resulting involuntary shift of the passengers to the port side of the vessel.”

(Keese) The board also said it could not determine whether the operator had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol because he hadn’t been tested soon enough after the incident.

The agency’s recommendations to New York State included stepping up requirements for chemical testing after any fatal accident. Other recommendations include more regulatory requirements for passenger boats. The Coast Guard now requires testing and recertification anytime a boat is modified. The New York State Assembly is currently considering a similar requirement.

The agency said little that would pinpoint blame for the tragedy.

(Hogan) “Their job isn’t to take anyone to task or hold anyone accountable. Their job is to gather information so that they can make prospective recommendations and that differs greatly from what my job is is to see whether any laws have been broken.”

(Keese) Warren County, New York, District Attorney Kate Hogan is still trying to determine whether criminal charges should be filed. She says she’ll make that decision within the next few weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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