An upstate New York tour boat was overloaded with passengers when it capsized in October, killing 20 elderly tourists, federal investigators said Tuesday.
The weight made the Ethan Allen dangerously unstable after it was struck by a wave from a passing boat or boats, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said.
"Was this vessel overloaded, in your opinion?" NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker asked Tuesday.
"It appears that there were a large number of passengers on board that seems to exceed the number that perhaps should have been," answered Capt. Morgan Turrell, an NTSB investigator.
The boat was certified to carry 50 people — 48 passengers plus two crew — according to weight limits that have since come under scrutiny and been revised. There were 48 people on board when it capsized.
Turrell said investigators believe the boat was rocked by a wake or combination of wakes, but they could not determine the size of the wave. Fifteen survivors said they saw no wake; others said they saw a wake but disagreed about the size.
Investigators ruled out any leakage or other problems with the hull and operator fatigue.
The Oct. 2 accident sparked changes in federal weight rules that could ultimately affect every commercial passenger boat in the United States.
Investigators quickly focused on the weight the boat was carrying and how it was distributed. Immediately after the accident, probers examined the combined weight of the passengers and the extra load of a heavier canopy and larger engine that had been added.
In statements to investigators, survivors offered their own theories to explain why the boat suddenly flipped on a calm, sunny day, dumping the passengers and captain into Lake George, a popular tourist attraction 60 miles north of Albany.
The group consisted mainly of elderly tourists from Michigan and Ohio on a fall foliage tour.
Joseph Mahalak, a retired engineer, told the NTSB the boat acted as if it was carrying a lot of water that hadn't been removed by a bilge pump.
Other passengers and the captain, Richard Paris, said the boat operated by Shoreline Cruises was hit by the wake from another boat just before it flipped over.
Underwater death trap
Survivors described how the puttering pleasure boat suddenly became an underwater death trap. Carol Ann Marsh of Sterling Heights, Mich., recounted the terror of being thrown into dark water full of thrashing bodies.
"I swam towards the light. Anybody that swam towards the dark never got out," Marsh said. "I started to go up towards the surface, and people were pulling on my legs to crawl up me, so they pulled me down. I went up once and they pulled me down under. I went up a second time... Somebody else grabbed my feet."
Marsh was among those rescued by other pleasure boaters on the lake that day, but her 79-year-old mother, Ann Beamish, drowned.
The Ethan Allen tragedy also raised wide-ranging implications for the boating industry, particularly the Coast Guard's decades-old rule calculating an average passenger weight at 140 pounds. That figure that determines how many people a boat can carry was calculated in the early 1960s and assumes a mix of men, women and children.
New York state watercraft rules on weight followed the federal standard.
But Americans are about 25 pounds heavier than they were 40 years ago and in April the Coast Guard announced it would set a standard of 185 pounds per person. The new weight calculation is voluntary until new rules are created.