N.Y. lake tour boat lacked crew hand, officials say

Only operator was aboard

death toll in capsizing revised down to 20

October 04, 2005|By ERROL A. COCKFIELD JR. | ERROL A. COCKFIELD JR.,NEWSDAY

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. -- When the tour boat tipped over and flung Jean Siler into the lake, she swam to the surface, breathed, and watched a bitter scene as friends fumbled about, screamed and clung to the sinking craft.

Somehow, after a wake upended the 40-foot Ethan Allen, Siler, 76, drew enough strength to tread for what seemed like 15 minutes, and even hold onto her purse, until a boater roped her and five others to safety. Shocked, she went numb.

"I couldn't stop trembling," Siler, of Trenton, Mich., recalled as she sat in a wheelchair yesterday at Glens Falls Hospital. She was suffering from back injuries and a broken finger.

Yesterday, officials with the state Department of Parks and Recreation said Shoreline Cruises, the operator of the tour boat, had violated a license requirement because the captain, Richard Paris, was the only crewman aboard.

Wendy Gibson, a Parks Department spokeswoman, said public vessels carrying between 21 and 48 passengers should have at least two crew members.

The department, which regulates boat traffic on Lake George, moved yesterday to suspend the licenses of Paris and Shoreline Cruises.

At an afternoon news conference, Gov. George E. Pataki said the step was procedural, not an indication that officials had assigned blame.

Authorities confirmed that 20 people - all residents of Michigan - died Sunday when the tour boat, carrying 48, overturned on a day when the sun shone through a clear, chalk-blue sky.

Yesterday, there were still many unknowns as authorities continued to investigate what might have caused the lake's waters to swell to such a destructive level. Interviews with victims and witnesses suggested nothing conclusive.

Officials sought to dispel early reports that another ship might have triggered the wake, and there was some conjecture that the volume of traffic on the lake could have been a factor.

Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland and New York State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett said an interview of the boat's captain - a 74-year-old resident of Lake George - right after the incident gave officials no reason to believe he was drinking or impaired.

Cleveland said he did not believe any of Paris' actions was criminal.

Paris, a retired New York state trooper who has been a boat pilot for about 20 years, told a reporter last night that his employers and attorneys advised him not to discuss the incident.

"I did what I could, but it wasn't enough for some of them," he said, looking distraught as he ventured out onto the back deck of his home while his wife, Ruth, cooked dinner.

By late yesterday, a National Transportation Safety Board recovery team had raised the boat with flotation devices.

It was being towed to an undisclosed location for an inspection. Mark Rosenker, NTSB's acting chairman, said the agency plans to issue a report and safety recommendations when it completes its investigation.

One question yesterday was the prudence of sailing a boat - on which the elderly Paris was the only crew member - with passengers whose ages ranged from the mid-50s to 80s. None wore a life preserver, which are not required under state law.

But beyond the formal details, stories such as Siler's emerged of heroism, compassion and desperate attempts by victims and onlookers to preserve lives.

"We saw people pulling bodies from the water and performing CPR," said Carole Reale, a Lake George resident who was boating and saw the Ethan Allen sink.

Many of the passengers were members of Trenton Travellers, a club that organizes trips all over the world. Officials released a victims list after they contacted relatives.

Siler, a retiree who volunteers for the American Red Cross, had come on the trip to relax. She had recently finished helping to set up a shelter in Louisiana for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Manager of disaster relief for the Red Cross' Monroe, Mich., chapter, Siler had also given her time after the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 terrorism attacks.

"I'm very used to coping with grief and tragedy with everyone but myself," she said.

A spokesman at Glens Falls Hospital, where the victims were taken, said eight patients were still hospitalized.

Yesterday, Pataki, who was joined by U.S. Rep. John E. Sweeney, of Clifton Park, said the incident would trigger an immediate review of New York's boat safety laws.

"We have an obligation to make sure every stone is turned over," Pataki said, "and to take any action we can possibly take to make sure it never happens again."

Errol A. Cockfield Jr. writes for Newsday. The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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