LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. – The captain of a tour boat that capsized, killing 20 people, told authorities it was hit by waves and turned over as he tried to steer out of them, authorities said Monday.
The postcard perfect day of sailing on Lake George (search) suddenly turned horrific Sunday when the 40-foot boat the Ethan Allen flipped over so quickly that none of the 47 passengers could put on a life jacket. Seven people were hospitalized.
There was no confirmation another boat that could have kicked up waves was even in the area, and survivors are giving investigators differing versions of what happened, authorities said.
Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (search), said the investigation would focus on the history of the boat, the pilot's history, the rules and regulations the boat operated under and whether the boat carried enough crew members.
"It's much too early to determine what happened out on that lake," Rosenker said.
There had been hundreds of boats on Lake George on the sunny Sunday afternoon, causing "a lot of wave action," Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland said earlier Monday. The boat's captain, Richard Paris, was the only crew member aboard, but that was allowed under state rules for a boat that size.
People from nearby boats on the busy lake tried to rescue the victims from the chilly water. Witnesses described a chaotic scene as the older victims, some who relied on walkers, cried out.
"The boat was sideways in the water, and people were screaming," said Joanne Rahal, who was in a boat when the Ethan Allen flipped. "Bodies were floating by our boat."
All the passengers were from Michigan, Cleveland said. Their names were not immediately disclosed. A hospital spokesman had earlier put the toll at 21, but Cleveland said it was 20.
All but one of the victims' families had been notified and some were en route to Lake George, Rosenker said.
"We were just cruising along, and all of a sudden, the boat tipped. We thought it was kind of like a joke," Ann Mae Hawley, 74, told the Glens Falls Post-Star. "Next thing I knew, I was in the water under the boat.
"I could see my husband, and I called to him, but he didn't respond. I don't know where he is now."
A former captain of the boat, William Huus, said the Ethan Allen would tend to list to the left when fully loaded because of the way the seats were configured. But he said he never had a problem with the boat.
"I carried hours and hours and hours on that boat and she was, I thought, a very safe boat," Huus said Monday.
A woman who answered the door at Paris' house and identified herself as the captain's wife said he was out of the house and would not be making a statement.
Police divers were back in the water Monday to raise the boat from the lake bottom. Divers will attach flotation bags to the boat, then pump it out and tow it to shore.
Shaken up survivors, some who lost medications in the disaster, were being tended to by the Red Cross.
"There's still a level of shock," said Eileen Reardon of Red Cross for the Adirondack Region.
On Monday, the shoreline yard that served as a makeshift morgue was still littered with traces of the disaster: a box of body bags, surgical gloves, empty water bottles, a pile of blankets and an identification tag with the name "Becker."
The glass-enclosed boat was carrying tourists, including a group from the Trenton, Mich., area. Lake George, about 50 miles north of Albany in the Adirondack Mountains, is approximately 32 miles long but less than 3 miles wide.
With calm water, clear skies and temperatures in the 70s, it seemed perfect boating weather and the lake bustled with activity.
Trenton, Mich., Mayor Gerald Brown, whose community is about 20 miles south of Detroit, said 14 of the passengers were part of a group, mostly from Trenton, on a weeklong bus-and-rail trip to see changing fall colors in the East.
Of the 14, three were killed, Brown said.
"We're a small community, and we handle things differently in small communities," Brown said. "We know names. We know faces. We have relatives. It's all intertwined. It's a sad day for us."
The trip was arranged through Canadian-based Shoreline Tours, Brown said. Representatives of Shoreline could not immediately be reached for comment by The Associated Press.
A separate company, Shoreline Cruises, owns the boat. It issued a statement saying it "is deeply saddened by yesterday's tragedy."
Cleveland said there were 47 passengers and the captain onboard, close to the boat's maximum capacity of 50. Twenty-seven people were taken to a hospital in nearby Glens Falls. Some suffered broken ribs and others complained of shortness of breath. Seven survivors were admitted, hospital spokesman Jason White said.
Adult boat passengers are not required to wear life jackets in New York, but boats must carry at least one life jacket per person.
The boat was last inspected in May and no problems were found, state officials said.
"It should have been a day of enjoyment," said state police Superintendent Wayne Bennett, who was out boating on the lake earlier Sunday. "Instead, it was one of sadness."
Associated Press writers Candice Choi and Matt Smith in Lake George and Glens Falls, Mike Hill in Albany and JoAnne Viviano in Detroit contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
APTV 10-03-05 1305EDT