NTSB: Boat Couldn't Handle Passenger Load

Tests on a tour boat similar to the one that capsized last week had to be abandoned after the boat leaned over dangerously with only a fraction of the weight it was approved to carry.

The boat became unstable Wednesday when a load representing 10 people was placed on one side, said Mark Rosenker, the National Transportation Safety Board's (search) acting chairman.

There were 47 passengers and one crewmember aboard the 38-foot Ethan Allen on Sunday when it capsized on Lake George (search), killing 20 senior citizens who had come from Michigan and Ohio to enjoy the fall colors.

Investigators placed three 55-gallon barrels at the edge of the test boat and filled them with water, at which point the boat became unstable. The barrels' combined weight was just over 1,400 pounds, or the equivalent of 10 adults as defined by Coast Guard weight standards.

"We terminated the test because it was unsafe at that point," Rosenker said. "It did not pass the test for what it was certified for. We did not get close."

NTSB officials have said the weight and distribution of the passengers may have contributed to the deadly accident. They performed the dockside tests on the de Champlain, a sister boat owned by Shoreline Cruises (search).

The government based its test of how many people a boat could carry on the assumption that the average passenger weighs 140 pounds, the current Coast Guard standard set in 1960.

According to a report in Thursday's Detroit Free Press, driver's license records for 42 of the 47 passengers — and information on another passenger given by a relative — showed their average weight was 174 pounds.

An NTSB spokesman would not comment on the Free Press report.

The NTSB last year recommended 174 pounds as the per-passenger weight standard when calculating a boat's capacity. The Coast Guard has not yet acted on the suggestion.

Rosenker also said passengers told investigators they were not given a safety briefing before the tour. State law does not require such a briefing.

The NTSB will continue tests on the open water with the de Champlain and hopes to put the Ethan Allen back in the water Thursday or Friday for similar tests. Rosenker said investigators also would take the Mohican, a 93-foot tour boat, out on the water for tests.

NTSB investigators were poring over the Ethan Allen, now in an airport hangar, for clues. Investigators were looking at modifications made to the boat since 1997 that may have made it heavier, including a wood-Fiberglas canopy that replaced a canvas model, a bigger engine and ballast to keep the boat level.

They also were waiting for results of an alcohol test from the boat's captain. Capt. Richard Paris, 74, voluntarily took a urine test Tuesday at the request of the NTSB, Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland said.

Paris did not take an alcohol test immediately after the accident. Cleveland said police lacked a reasonable cause to test Paris since he showed no signs of impairment during a face-to-face interview.

Cleveland said he conducted field tests such as asking Paris to blow into his face so he could smell for alcohol. The sheriff said Paris passed all those tests.

Gov. George Pataki on Wednesday said he will propose in the next few days legislation to make the state's boating-safety standards as tough as existing federal regulations. No alcohol or drug test is required under state law after a fatal crash unless authorities can prove a reasonable cause to test the driver.