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Tour Boat Had Just One Crewman

New York officials move to suspend the captain's license. Twenty people are confirmed dead.

October 04, 2005|From Newsday

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

Somehow Siler, 76, drew enough strength to tread water for what seemed like 15 minutes, until a boater pulled her and five others to safety. She even held on to her purse through the ordeal but felt in shock after her rescue.

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

Officials with the state Department of Parks and Recreation said Monday that 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 Monday to suspend the licenses of Paris and Shoreline Cruises.

At an afternoon news conference, New York 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 people, overturned.

There were still many unknowns as authorities continued to investigate what may have caused the boat to flip. Interviews with victims and witnesses suggested nothing conclusive.

Officials sought to dispel early reports that another ship might have left a large wake that swamped the tour boat.

Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland and New York State Police Supt. Wayne Bennett said an interview with 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 were criminal.

Cleveland, who spoke to Paris, said the retired New York State trooper and veteran of the lake was overcome with guilt. "He's always been safe," Cleveland said. "Monday, he was destroyed."

By late Monday, a National Transportation Safety Board recovery team had raised the boat with flotation devices. Mark Rosenker, the board's acting chairman, said the agency planned to issue a report and safety recommendations when it completed its investigation.

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

But beyond the formal details, stories like 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.

Siler, a retiree who is manager of disaster relief for the American Red Cross in Monroe, Mich., had come on the trip to relax because she had recently finished helping to set up a shelter in Louisiana for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

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

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