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Questions linger on capacity limits in NY capsize

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FRANK ELTMAN | August 12, 2012 12:49 PM EST | AP

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OYSTER BAY, N.Y. — Paul and Lisa Gaines buried their little girl just weeks ago. Victoria Gaines would have turned 8 two days after she and two other playmates, ages 12 and 11, died when they were trapped inside the cabin of a yacht that capsized in New York's Oyster Bay minutes after enjoying July 4th fireworks.

A month later, investigators have yet to determine whether the 27 passengers – 17 adults and seven other children who survived – were too many for the 34-foot Silverton yacht. Police say they also are considering weather conditions, a rogue wave and other factors as causes for the accident.

But experts, politicians and others, including the Gaineses, say at the very least, capacity standards should be set for vessels the size of the Kandi Won, which tumbled into the water seemingly without warning. The U.S. Coast Guard now only sets limits on boats 20 feet or smaller.

"This was a purely avoidable incident and never ever should have happened," a tearful Paul Gaines told reporters last week after appearing at a New York state Senate hearing on boating safety.

While the Gaineses did not specifically blame overcrowding, they said vessels of every size should have a clearly defined capacity limit. "I cannot stand the thought of this loss of my daughter's life being in vain," Paul Gaines said.

Coast Guard statistics show that 758 people died in 4,588 boating accidents nationwide last year. The overwhelming majority – more than 600 – were aboard vessels 26 feet and smaller. Lisa Novak, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, said an annual review of accident data has not found enough capsizing accidents involving boats 20 feet and longer to justify a rule requiring capacity markings for them.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York disagrees. He has met with the Gaines family and unsuccessfully tried to lobby the Coast Guard to change its policy voluntarily. He told The Associated Press he will now introduce legislation requiring capacity standards for all recreational vessels.

"How hard is it to expand this policy to boats over 20 feet?" he asked. "This seems like a very bureaucratic notion. I'm very disappointed in what they said. It doesn't even seem logical."

Eric Sorensen, author of "Sorensen's Guide to Powerboats," and a consultant to boat manufacturers, performed his own analysis of the Kandi Won accident for Soundings Magazine, and concluded the yacht was overcrowded.

"Twenty seven is easily double the amount of people that I would have put on that boat," he told the AP in a telephone interview. He argued that because the journey was at night and with children aboard, fewer passengers would have been prudent.

He said that particular Silverton model is designed with the boat's controls on a level above the main deck, making it sit higher in the water than some other boats. With so many people aboard, he theorizes some guests were on the higher deck, making it more likely the vessel would capsize.

"With all that live weight moving around, it creates a worse effect. Once it starts to roll, with people shifting their weight trying to maintain their footing, it will rapidly diminish stability further," Sorensen said.

Sorensen has not always favored government-mandated capacity standards, but has begun to revise his position. "At the very least, I think it would be a good idea for guidelines to be posted somewhere so a boat owner would have some idea of what his boat can safely carry," he said.

James Mercante, the attorney for the boat's owner, Kevin Treanor (whose 11 year-old daughter, Harley, perished) insists the Kandi Won was not overcrowded.

"There is seating for 14 and enough room for 12 to 14 in other parts of the boat," said Mercante, whose expertise is in maritime law. "The boat has a substantial platform; there's room forward, aft and in the cabin. It's a substantial vessel."

Sal Aureliano was operating the Kandi Won when it capsized and lost his 12-year-old nephew David Aureliano in the tragedy. He told a television interviewer after the accident that he saw two lightning bolts and then a wave suddenly caused the boat to flip. His attorney, Anthony LaPinta, said although Aureliano was "interviewed extensively the night of the incident," he is not permitting his client to discuss the case further with investigators.

Nassau County Police Inspector Kenneth Lack said there would be no public comment until the investigation is completed. He did not know when that would happen, and it was unclear whether the case would be presented to a grand jury. A spokesman for the district attorney also would not comment.

"In my view this is not worthy of a grand jury investigation, but that's their prerogative," LaPinta said. He declined comment on the overcrowding issue.

Cindy Squires, chief counsel of public affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, said ultimate responsibility for safety on the water rests with the owner or operator of a vessel.

"When you're the skipper you must take your job seriously and be familiar with the boat," she said, adding her group encourages mandatory boater education courses. "Even if it's been a while, it's always a good idea to have continuing education. There are good courses out there. You don't want to buy a new boat and then be afraid of it."