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Lake George Boating Accident Kills 21 People


At least 21 elderly tourists died yesterday in New York state when a tour boat capsized on Lake George north of Albany. Many of the 49 passengers on board were with a tour group from Michigan. The 40-foot boat overturned so quickly that few of the victims had a chance to pull on life jackets. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

BRIAN MANN reporting:

The Ethan Allen has been a fixture on Lake George for years. The slender, glass-windowed boat made one-hour cruises along the shore. The tour is especially popular this time of year when the fall color's at its peak. Warren County Sheriff Larry Cleveland says the boat flipped suddenly around 3 PM while cruising in a small bay.

Sheriff LARRY CLEVELAND (Warren County Sheriff's Department): We believe and we have not confirmed that they hit the wave of one of the larger cruise boats and it overturned and upset the boat and threw the passengers into the water.

MANN: Some of the victims were part of a package tour which had traveled to the Northeast from Trenton, Michigan. Cleveland says many of the passengers were elderly and infirmed.

Sheriff CLEVELAND: Some of them were using walkers and wheelchairs; were not able to get around easily.

MANN: The day was sunny and warm, which meant that speedboats and even canoes were nearby, able to reach the accident scene quickly. David Warren watched the rescue from his lake-front home.

Mr. DAVID WARREN: There were mostly private boats and they began coming in and carrying people; some of them had succumbed.

MANN: Some of the rescuers reported hearing victims trapped inside the overturned boat. Through the afternoon and evening at least 21 dead bodies were brought ashore to the beach not far from the accident site. A temporary morgue was set up on the lawn next door to Warren's home.

Mr. WARREN: They set up a private area right by the lake. The bodies were laid out, covered with sheets.

MANN: As survivors arrived on shore, Warren says, neighbors provided blankets and hot coffee and offered telephones so that people could call their family.

Mr. WARREN: They were wet and cold and many of them were--well, they were suffering.

MANN: A fleet of ambulances carried 27 victims to a hospital in nearby Glens Falls, New York. Officials there say the elderly patients were suffering from broken ribs, chest pains and shortness of breath. At least seven people were admitted for treatment; the rest were sent last night to nearby hotels. The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to arrive at Lake George later this morning. Sheriff Larry Cleveland says a full investigation is under way.

Sheriff CLEVELAND: We will, of course, conduct an investigation into this to determine whether or not there was any type of a criminal matter involved. I want to stress to you now that all doors are open, but we do not believe there's anything criminal about what took place.

MANN: The Ethan Allen was inspected by the state's Department of Parks and Recreation in May. The boat was carrying 49 passengers, one fewer than its maximum capacity. Lake George officials say the captain, who survived the accident, is experienced and respected. This is the worst accident in Lake George history. Locals like Fred Lethbridge, who's lived on the lake all his life, say the disaster's left them baffled.

Mr. FRED LETHBRIDGE: It was a normal day; it was a calm day. And all of a sudden, you know, the whistles were blowing and ambulances were going all over the place. And when we found out, you know, and heard the terrible details and everything, we were quite shocked by it.

MANN: The death toll from this accident might have been even higher, but unseasonably warm weather has kept the water temperatures on the lake relatively high, around 69 degrees Fahrenheit. The Ethan Allen sank about 30 minutes after flipping over and is now resting on the muddy bottom of Lake George. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in northern New York.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.