Margie Kidon remembers the moment the Ethan Allen capsized.
She was on the tour boat’s left side, facing the middle of Lake George on a beautiful early October afternoon, chatting with friends from the seniors group she was with, when she spotted a boat pass by on the other side of the tour boat. She had been watching the shore, but had turned to the middle moments earlier, thinking “I’ll see that on the way back.”
There was no way back for the Ethan Allen that day. Seconds later, the boat rocked, passengers began falling and the boat overturned.
“The next thing I knew my head hit the glass and we were in the water. I thought, ‘This is not happening,’” she recalled.
Kidon was lucky, as she held on long enough for rescuers Larry Steinhart and Joyce Cloutier to pull her from the water into their boat.
It was a decade ago on Friday, Oct. 2, that the Lake George region was thrust into the national spotlight when one of the lake’s tour boats overturned. Twenty of the 48 people on board drowned.
The tragedy resulted in years of criminal investigations and litigation and ultimately changed the way the tour boat industry operates in New York.
State scrutiny of tour boats increased. The Legislature debated new laws for years, eventually passing a number that targeted the industry. The rubber-stamp inspections that led to the Ethan Allen not having a stability test for decades was ended.
Kidon, now 75, was a chaperone with the Trenton Travelers seniors group when two busloads of retirees from the suburbs of Detroit toured New England and upstate New York to take in the foliage. She was friends with many members of the group, which had taken numerous trips together.
What kept her fighting when she was pitched into the 60-foot-deep water was concern for her dog.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘I have to get home to Toby,’ “ she said.
Ten years later, Kidon said some of the survivors — most of whom were in their 70s at the time — have died or gone into nursing homes. She drove by one woman’s home last week and saw movers at the house, packing up the woman’s belongings.
Kidon said she had health problems for years that she blamed on the boat accident — mainly skin and respiratory problems from exposure to spilled fuel. She lost her job, as the city discontinued its senior travel program after the tragedy.
But she remembers the way the people of the Lake George and Glens Falls areas were so kind and helpful to the survivors. She recalled the way staff at The Georgian Resort helped them and local residents offered meals, which she still feels thankful for.
“I think about it all the time,” she said. “I still can’t believe it all happened.”
Queensbury resident Mounir Rahal, his wife and five children were enjoying the day on their boat on Lake George when they saw the commotion a short distance away. They went to the scene, and were among the first boaters there.
They pulled six passengers from the water, and Rahal’s oldest daughter, Allie, performed CPR on one.
“It still haunts us,” Rahal said Wednesday. “I remember Allie, she was just 13 years old, using the CPR she had just learned. I remember talking about the smell of gasoline.”
The victims were coated in fuel from the boat, which spilled as it went under.
“We were one of the first boats there. They were all still in the water,” he said.
Rahal, who runs M. Rahal Jewelers in South Glens Falls, said he kept in touch with several of the victims’ families in the years that followed. The daughter of one woman who died had him make an anniversary ring for her a few years ago.
He talked to one survivor fairly regularly for years, but as they aged, the correspondence became less frequent.
The Rahals received many thank-you notes and letters in the months after the accident.
“I still have every single letter that was sent to me. They are precious,” Rahal said.
Rahal and his wife enjoyed a calm late summer day on their boat last weekend, and Rahal said they talked about how calm it was but that the lake can bring unexpected things when winds or storms whip up on calm days.
Bodies in water
Warren County sheriff’s Lt. Steve Stockdale was among the first police officers on the scene, having hopped on a patrol boat in the village of Lake George with Sgt. Michael Webster to head north as the reports of the situation spread over the police radio system.
Webster sped to the scene, and as they approached Cramer Point, the officers could see the overturned hull of the boat with “debris” all around it.
Much of the debris was the bodies of the victims, they learned seconds later.
“Mike was driving the boat, and when we got there I had to pull out two ladies who had drowned,” he said. “We got on the phone to the (Glens Falls) Hospital right away to tell them to activate their disaster plan.”
“It was a very surreal experience.”
It was the first of several whirlwind days for sheriff’s officers. A Post-Star photograph of Stockdale, kneeling in apparent prayer over the body of one of the victims in a body bag on shore, became an iconic image of the tragedy, picked up by media around the world. Days later, then-Gov. George Pataki recognized Stockdale after seeing that photo.
Lake George Mayor Robert Blais was among a contingent of local officials who converged on the village of Lake George that Sunday afternoon to help organize assistance for the survivors and others who were with the tour group. Blais had been golfing that afternoon, and wasn’t sure about the accuracy of what he was hearing on the golf course about a massive tragedy.
On the one-year anniversary, a monument to the victims was unveiled at the end of Amherst Street in Lake George.
Blais has organized a memorial service at the monument this year for the 10-year anniversary as well. It will be held at 12:30 p.m. Friday.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation spanned about nine months and resulted in a 3,300-page report that concluded a number of factors played a part in the capsizing, but stopped short of placing blame.
The agency found the boat was overloaded because standards for the weight of passengers were outdated; and found that alterations, including the addition of a canopy, affected the boat’s stability.
The Ethan Allen should have carried no more than 14 people, but held nearly three times that the day it went down. It had been certified to carry 50, based on estimates of people weighing 140 pounds apiece. The passengers that day weighed as much as 268 pounds each.
A Warren County grand jury investigated the tragedy and declined to file homicide charges or place blame. But the grand jury issued a report and filed misdemeanor charges against boat Captain Richard Paris and owner Shoreline Cruises for not having a second crew member on the boat. Both Paris and the company pleaded guilty in 2007 and were fined $250 apiece.
Less than a year after the NTSB report was issued, the agency’s chief investigator into the tragedy asked Congress to reopen the investigation. The investigator, Robert Ford, quit his position with the NTSB over concerns about the way the investigation was handled.
He told The Post-Star in June 2007 that evidence was ignored, most importantly about the boat’s raw water coolant pump, which he believed leaked significant amounts of water into the boat’s hull that would have greatly affected its stability. The boat’s owners had the pump replaced weeks before the capsizing.
“They committed early to the wake,” he said at the time, referring to the theory that a wave from a passing boat had tipped the Ethan Allen. “They (the NTSB) basically thought it was going to be a slam dunk, and they stopped investigating. They just drove it (the final report) right through.”
Congress rejected the request to renew the investigation.
The capsizing was an issue in the 2007 race for Warren County sheriff. Questions about whether Paris should have been given a breath test for possible alcohol use were highlighted by Bud York as he challenged then-Sheriff Larry Cleveland. Cleveland ultimately lost to York.
With York and Cleveland facing off for sheriff again this year, the front page of York’s campaign website highlights his criticism of the Ethan Allen investigation.
Cleveland has said he had Paris breathe in his face after the capsizing, and there was no odor of alcohol.
Paris, a retired state trooper who is now in his mid-80s, no longer lives in the small house near Lake George where he lived for decades. A reporter visited him at his home in Queensbury on Wednesday, and a woman who answered the door said Paris did not want to discuss the matter.
The conclusion that the boat was overloaded led to sweeping changes to decades-old state regulations for the industry, some of them suggested by the grand jury that reviewed the facts of the case.
With the average person’s weight heavier now than decades ago, passenger limits were reduced on many boats.
The changes increased penalties for violations of state Navigation Law, required at least two exits for a boat that can carry more than 20 people, prohibited the operation of a public vessel with insufficient crew members and set out criteria for boat owners to notify the state when modifying a vessel and affecting its “seaworthiness or safe operation.”
James Quirk, owner of Shoreline Cruises, said after the package of regulation changes was enacted that he didn’t think they went far enough.
He said no change required the state to test the stability of public vessels that come into the state with U.S. Coast Guard certificates of inspection. The Ethan Allen had such a certificate of inspection, and its stability was never retested by the Coast Guard or state after a canopy was added that affected its seaworthiness. Quirk said he believed the expense of performing such tests stalled legislative efforts.
A call to the president of the New York State Tour Boat Association, Michael Eagan, owner of a tour boat operation on Long Island, was not returned last week.
The Ethan Allen was ultimately sold to a company that planned to use it for tours on the Hudson River, but that effort fell through and efforts to resell it failed. It was ultimately scrapped.
More than 20 lawsuits were filed against Shoreline, the state and contractors who worked on the boat. Some were settled, but litigation filed against the state dragged on for nearly 7 years.
The court action against Shoreline was derailed when it was determined that owner James Quirk had been defrauded when buying liability insurance, and no insurance was in effect. Still, Quirk paid an undisclosed amount to settle the lawsuits. He did not return a phone call for comment Wednesday.
The last lawsuit, in which the state was named as a defendant because boat inspectors were alleged to have been negligent, was dismissed by the state’s highest court in November 2012. The Court of Appeals found the state had “governmental immunity.”
Kidon said she long believed the legal action taken after the tragedy was insufficient. She called the fines paid by Quirk and Paris “a slap on the wrist.”
“It’s always bothered me, the way it was handled,” she said. “None of this will ever leave my mind.”