Extra weight may be factor in fatal boat crash; divers search lake | VailDaily.com

Extra weight may be factor in fatal boat crash; divers search lake

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. – Just days before a tour boat capsized in the Adirondack Mountains, killing 20 elderly people, the Coast Guard began rethinking its passenger-weight calculations to take into account Americans’ expanding waistlines.At the time it flipped over, the 38-foot Ethan Allen was just under its capacity of 48 passengers – a figure that was arrived at by using a New York standard that assumes a 150-pound average for each man, woman and child, authorities said. The U.S. Coast Guard standard assumes a 140-pound average for each person.Investigators looking into the accident have said that too much weight may have been a factor and suggested those standards may have to be revised because Americans are getting heavier – something the Coast Guard recognized well before the tragedy.”We are looking at that and we know that if you look around at average people, you know this is not an accurate average to be using,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela McArdle.The disclosure from the Coast Guard in Washington came as divers combed the bottom of Lake George for the belongings of the elderly passengers tossed into the water and experts examined the boat for clues to why it overturned on a calm, clear Sunday during a one-hour sightseeing tour.At a news conference late Tuesday, the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators would conduct tests Wednesday to see how The Ethan Allen would have handled at various speeds while carrying its maximum load of 50 people using a 160-pound-per-passenger calculation.The test also will explain what might have happened if the weight suddenly shifted to one side, a possible cause of the accident.Acting NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker also said the 39-year-old boat had modifications that would have made it heavier. Among them, a canvas canopy was replaced with a wood-and-Fiberglas design, a larger engine was installed, and seven lead bricks for ballast were placed in the bow, probably to keep the boat balanced after the larger engine was installed.The NTSB will do the tests on The Ethan Allen’s twin sister boat, The de Champlain, in what Rosenker called “a very scientific road test.””We’re going to learn a lot,” he said.Rosenker said four passengers interviewed Tuesday told investigators the windows on the boat were open when it flipped, helping some to escape.An examination of the boat also found no automatic bilge pump in the Ethan Allen, meaning a pilot or crew member would have to manually pump out water.Finally, Rosenker said a “human factor” test would study the actions of the boat’s captain in the 72 hours leading up to the accident.Earlier, police said the boat’s operator, Shoreline Cruises, could face a fine of $25 to $100 for failing to have a second crew member on board to aid the 74-year-old captain, Richard Paris. A state inspector determined in May the boat needed two crew members.”You could imagine the things that could go wrong,” said state police Maj. Gerald Meyer. “There may be times when someone may need to attend to someone while the vessel was being operated.”The state on Monday night suspended the operating certificates for all five of Shoreline’s boats.Other government regulators also are changing standards to adapt to heavier Americans. Following a commuter plane crash that killed 21 people in 2003 in North Carolina, the Federal Aviation Administration raised its summertime weight average from 160 pounds per person to 174, including carry-on baggage.McArdle said the Coast Guard awarded a contract just a few weeks ago to a research firm to determine how increasing the average weight per passenger would affect vessels around the United States.McArdle said the Coast Guard knew the weight requirement has been outdated for some time, but did not move on the issue until the National Transportation Safety Board warned about the problem following the sinking of a water taxi in the Baltimore harbor that killed five people in 2004. Asked why the Coast Guard did not move more quickly on the weight-per-person calculation, McArdle said: “It has such wide-ranging implications. You need to address the economic impact on the industry, looking at the scope. It’s not something where we can just say, ‘Now passenger ferries must carry 20 fewer people.”‘McArdle said it was too early to say when a new regulation would be drawn up or what the new weight standard might be.Investigators believe a combination of factors could have contributed to the Ethan Allen tragedy, including a large wake created by another boat, a sudden shift of passengers’ weight on the boat’s bench-style seats, and the overall weight of the passengers.The 47 passengers were senior citizens from Michigan and Ohio who had come East to see the changing fall colors.The investigation continued Tuesday with a scheduled interview of the captain and the examination of the Ethan Allen in a nearby airplane hangar.Rich Morin, a professional scuba diver who helped raise the boat Monday, said when he saw the boat underwater, “there didn’t appear to be any damage at all.”Of the 27 people brought to Glens Falls Hospital after the capsizing, four remained hospitalized Tuesday.Also Tuesday, Shoreline owner James Quirk said he and his company were “shocked and saddened” by the sinking. He refused to answer questions beyond a statement in which said: “This company’s been in the passenger boat business for 27 years and until this event we have had a perfect record.”Police also released tapes of 911 calls made minutes after the boat tipped over. One caller frantically told a dispatcher: “Oh my God! Oh, my God! A boat! A boat! A boat went over!” When asked how many people were on the boat, she answered: “Oh, a lot of people – they’re hanging on to the bottom where it went over! Oh, please hurry!”Vail, Colorado

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