Lake Hamilton, AR Pleasure Boat Sinks, May 1999



Hot Springs, Ark. (AP) -- Investigators are focusing on whether a faulty drive shaft seal and a large canopy combined to help drag 13 people to their deaths aboard a fast sinking boat.
The World War II vintage vessel had been in the repair shop just two days before it sank to the bottom of Lake Hamilton on Saturday, drowning 13 of its 21 passengers, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday.
NTSB member John A. Hammerschmidt said investigators want to know whether the repairs actually were made by company mechanics and, if so, in what manner.
That determination would have to wait until the boat can be raised from beneath 51 feet of water.
The owner's insurance company wants to photograph it and the U.S. Coast Guard wants to approve the salvage plan to make sure no evidence is damaged, said Robert Bowen of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office at Memphis, Tenn.
Officials said the "duck" boat -- called such because it can travel on both land and water -- sank in a matter of seconds as passengers scrambled for life preservers, which were not required to be worn on the vessel.
Some victims -- especially those near the center of the vessel -- may have been prevented from swimming free by an overhead canopy.
"The canopy of the vessel appears to be a significant factor in escaping the vessel,"
said Mr. Hammerschmidt, whose team of investigators interviewed survivors yesterday.
Most of the victims were found inside the boat, which was resting on its hull on the lake's bottom, said Garland County Sheriff Larry Selig.
Among those questioned yesterday was driver Elizabeth Helmbrecht, 56, who had taken the boat in for repairs Thursday after a bilge pump turned on automatically during a cruise, Mr. Hammerschmidt said. The driver said there was a hole in a rubber seal around a drive shaft -- allowing water into the boat, he said.
Saturday was the first time the boat had been out since, and the driver was about seven minutes from shore when she realized the boat was taking on water, according to Mr. Hammerschmidt.
She told investigators she tried to turn on the bilge pump, grab a radio, and turn back to shore, but the boat sank less than a minute after she became aware of the problem, Mr. Hammerschmidt said.
Other survivors said the boat sank even quicker than that.
"The driver thought the boat was listing to port, so several people attempted to move starboard," passenger James McGuirk told the sheriff's office. "By that time, it was obvious the boat was sinking."
"From the time the driver asked people to move until the boat was under, it was 15 seconds tops," Mr. McGuirk said. His wife, MELANIE, 22, died in the accident.
The vessel, the Miss Majestic, is one of several amphibious vehicles that have rolled and floated through Hot Springs for 40 years without any previous fatalities.
The Coast Guard asked local companies that operate the vehicles to suspend operations until the sunken boat can be inspected.
Partial List of Casualties:
EMILY TODD, 4, daughter.
THOMAS TODD, 5, son.
MELANIE McGUIRK, 22, daughter-in-law.
DANNA POWERS, 32, Little Rock.
JIM PATTON, 48, Russellville.
FLOY PATTON, died at St. Joseph's Regional Health Center.
JENNIFER PATTON, 20, daughter.
LANA JO BERRY, 42, Dyersburg, Tenn.

The Capital Annapolis Maryland 1999-05-03