Boat's shoddy condition caused accident that killed three, safety expert testifies Specialist blames tragedy on faulty electric system, other disrepair on vessel

September 27, 1995|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN STAFF

LEONARDTOWN -- When it sank, the El Toro II had a shoddy electrical system, rotted life vests and planks so loose they were attached only by gravity, a marine safety expert testified yesterday.

Harry L. Langley also told a St. Mary's Circuit Court judge the Dec. 5, 1993, accident in which three people died initially was caused by shoddy wiring that connected a battery to a copper grounding plate near the 58-foot fishing boat's hull.

The faulty wiring created a "stray current" that sent electricity surging into the bilge water collected at the base of the 32-year-old boat, Mr. Langley said.

"That's the worst condition you can have in a wooden boat," Mr. Langley told Judge John Hanson Briscoe.

Judge Briscoe is expected to decide Friday whether the boat's captain, Joseph C. Lore II, 54, and his son, Clayton S. Lore, 32, should be convicted of manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the three deaths.

The defendants, who have sat stoically in the courtroom, could get at least 15 years in prison if convicted.

Passengers Robert B. Shipe, 45, of Mechanicsville and Horace I. Smith, 64, of Washington and crewman Eddie Philips, 19, of Piney Point died of hypothermia after being fished out of the 54-degree waters off Point Lookout.

In testimony yesterday, Mr. Langley said the El Toro badly needed repairs. The boat had dry-rotted life vests, power cables wound with electrical tape, and the wrong size of fuses controlling power to malfunctioning bilge pumps.

The electrical current surging into the bilge water eventually dissolved the 5-inch spikes that had been hammered into three wooden planks to hold them in place, Mr. Langley said.

"There just weren't any spikes there," he said. "They had all deteriorated." The ship went down after a wooden support brace that was supposed to hold a 700-pound fuel tank in place was cut loose, causing the tank to vibrate on top of the loosened planks. "The vibration, ever so slight as it was, over time loosened those planks," said Mr. Langley. He also said two bilge pumps shared the same 20-amp fuse and wiring, a violation of basic boating safety requirements. Each should have had its own 12-amp fuse and wiring, he said. A week after the accident, Mr. Langley found three of the 40 life vests on board were so mildewed and rotted they would have been useless at the time of the accident, he said. In Monday's testimony, one passenger said two life vests he was given came apart when he put them on.

Under cross-examination yesterday, Mr. Langley acknowledged he was unfamiliar with the customs of many area charter fishing boat captains and that his explanation of the accident could be disputed by other experts.

"This is really the only explanation that I could have for what happened," he said.

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