N.Y. lake cruise kills at least 20 tourists

The 40-foot craft overturns in calm weather, killing nearly half of about 50 aboard on a senior citizens' outing.

By wire services
Published October 3, 2005

LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. - A glass-enclosed boat carrying tourists on a senior citizens' cruise overturned Sunday on a calm, chilly lake in upstate New York, killing at least 20 people and sending more than two dozen shivering passengers to a hospital.

The accident may have occurred when the boat was hit by the wake of a larger passing vessel, Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland said. "We haven't ruled anything out yet," he said.

The 40-foot Ethan Allen capsized around 3 p.m. on Lake George, about 50 miles north of Albany in the Adirondack Mountains. With calm waters, clear skies and temperatures in the 70s, it seemed perfect boating weather.

Brian Heart, who was canoeing nearby, said the Ethan Allen made a hard right turn, like it "was trying to steer away from something," and "in a matter of 45 seconds, it slipped right over."

The lake is about 70 feet deep where the boat sank. The accident apparently happened so fast that none of the passengers was able to put on a life jacket, Cleveland said.

Adult boat passengers are not required to wear life jackets in New York.

Patrol boats that reached the scene within minutes found other boaters already pulling people from the water. Twenty-seven people were taken to a hospital in nearby Glens Falls. Some suffered broken ribs and some complained of shortness of breath. Five people were to be admitted, hospital spokesman Jason White said.

"Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened," state police Superintendent Wayne Bennett said. "It's unprecedented."

Officials gave conflicting information on the number of dead and passengers. Cleveland said there were 48 or 49 people aboard, which is close to the boat's maximum capacity of 50.

Investigators were interviewing survivors to get an accurate count. The National Transportation Safety Board was expected at the lake today, the sheriff said.

Fourteen of the passengers who were plunged into the water were members of a senior citizens group from Trenton, Mich., south of Detroit; it was unclear whether any of them were killed.

"They were taking a New England color tour, is what they were doing, and this stop was one of the stops on their way home," said Patrick Hawkins, Trenton's director of Parks and Recreation.

Witnesses said some of the passengers said they were Canadian, but law enforcement officials said they did not know of any foreign nationals involved. Trenton is a short drive from Canada.

Lake George, a long, narrow finger of water ringed by heavily wooded mountains in the southern Adirondacks, is plied daily by several tour boats, most of them much larger than the Ethan Allen . On sunny weekend days like Sunday, the lake can be a nautical traffic jam of sailboats, small motorboats, larger tour boats and personal watercraft.

Dozens of people passing a sunny afternoon on their own boats or on shore swarmed to the site, pulling survivors from the water, tossing them life preservers, and plucking them from the upturned keel of the Ethan Allen before it slipped entirely below the water.

"I could hear people screaming inside the boat," said Heart, 48. "We just couldn't get to them."

Police investigators were at the hospital late Sunday to question survivors.

Dorothy Warren, a resident who said she brought blankets and chairs to shore for survivors, said one passenger told her "she saw a big boat coming close and she said, "Whoop-dee-doo. I love a rocking boat."'

Warren said the woman did not know how she got out of the water but said her mother was killed.

Many of the bodies were laid out along the shore, and the site was blocked off by police with tarps. A hearse, police vehicles and several sport utility vehicles later began taking the dead from the scene.

The weather did not appear to be a factor on the lake.

"This was as calm as it gets," said Jerry Thornell, a former Lake George Park Commission patrol officer and a lake enforcement officer for the county sheriff's department.

Representatives of Shoreline Cruises, which operates the boat, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The boat's owner, Jim Quirk, whose family has operated Shoreline Cruises for decades, told the Glens Falls Post-Star : "It is a tragedy and it's very unfortunate."

Authorities said the Ethan Allen's pilot, Richard Paris, whom investigators were interviewing, had not been tested for drug or alcohol use, because there was no evidence of intoxication that would warrant such a test.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.