LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. – The owner of the boat that capsized on Lake George (search), killing 20 elderly tourists, could face a fine as low as $25 for failing to have enough crew members on board, police said Tuesday.
As divers searched for evidence and the victims' belongings, State Police Maj. Gerald Meyer (search) told reporters that a state inspector determined in May the 38-foot Ethan Allen needed one crew member besides the captain because it carried up to 48 passengers.
The captain, 74-year-old Richard Paris (search), was the only crew member aboard when the boat, with 47 passengers, overturned Sunday afternoon during what was supposed to be a relaxing, one-hour fall foliage tour for a group of senior citizens. He was among the 28 survivors.
The state late Monday suspended the operating certificates for all five tour boats run by Shoreline Cruises after the determination that one crew member was aboard, said Wendy Gibson, spokeswoman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Meyer said the fine for violating state navigation regulations is between $25 and $100.
The Ethan Allen was hauled out of the lake late Monday night and taken to a county airport, where National Transportation Safety Board investigators were to examine the vessel to determine why it capsized.
"The inspector made the determination that there was in fact an additional crew required for that vessel and did list one crew in addition to the pilot on that permit," Meyer said.
The Ethan Allen has a maximum capacity of 50 people — 48 passengers and two crew, Gibson said earlier. Commercial boats in New York that carry between 21 and 48 passengers must have two crew members.
Police said a wave from a passing boat and a sudden shift of passengers' weight on the boat's long benches may have factored into the capsizing. An investigation is ongoing.
"The bottom line is, any one of these little factors could not have upset the boat," said Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland. "If four or five of these came together, it's possible."
State officials originally suspended the certificates for two small boats similar to the Ethan Allen, but Gibson said they had expanded the suspension to include the Adirondac and the Horicon, larger cruise ships carry 400 and 200 guests, respectively.
At a brief appearance at the lakeside Tuesday afternoon, Shoreline Cruises owner James Quirk said he and his company are "shocked and saddened by Sunday's tragic event" and said the company had a perfect record in 27 years in the boat business. He said he had met with some of the survivors and the company was offering assistance to them.
Cleveland cautioned not to draw conclusions from the suspended certificates. "I do not believe there is any criminal culpability on any of the parties we have spoken with," he said.
The captain of the glass-enclosed boat told authorities it was hit by waves from at least one other vessel and turned over as he tried to steer out of them, authorities said.
The boat flipped so fast that no passenger could put on a life jacket. Forty-six passengers were from Michigan, with one from Ohio. Eight people were hospitalized with shortness of breath, broken bones and other injuries.
State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett said passengers either slid or were thrown to one side of the boat after it began lurching. "And that, of course, would automatically mean an even bigger shift of weight," Bennett said.
The Ethan Allen was rated for 50 passengers based on the Coast Guard standard of 150 pounds per person. Cleveland said that standard may have to be revised in light of data showing Americans growing fatter.
On Monday afternoon, crews using inflatable bags raised the sunken boat 70 feet to the surface. Orange life vests could be seen floating inside. The search continued for other items.
"We know there are articles on the bottom," Cleveland said. "We're trying to get all those things put back together so we can get them returned."
Only Colorado, Indiana and New Hampshire require adults to wear life preservers when a boat is motion, said Melissa Savage of the National Conference of State Legislatures. No state has special laws governing boaters who are elderly or infirm.
The Lake George Park Commission and the sheriff's department are responsible for enforcing safety on the lake, and they may reconsider the rules governing crew size and life jacket use, particularly when elderly or infirm passengers are involved, said James Hood, a spokesman for the advocacy group called the Lake George Association.
"It seems like a logical question or at least something to review," Hood said.
The captain was not tested for drug or alcohol after the accident. The sheriff said he had no legal grounds for administering such a test. The sheriff also said Paris had a state license, rather than a Coast Guard one, which would have required a test for drugs or alcohol.
The boat was last inspected in May and no problems were found, officials said.