PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION -- The blame for the sinking of the El Toro II must be shared by the Coast Guard, the boat's insurance company and the owner, lawyers for the victims' families said yesterday.
"The system itself broke down in all areas," said Philip H. Dorsey, who is representing the estate of Robert Bernard Shipe.
"The safety net doesn't exist," added Thomas Tate, who is representing the estate of Horace Smith, another victim.
The El Toro II, a charter fishing boat, went down in in a storm Dec. 5 during a fishing outing on the Chesapeake Bay. Three people, who paid $27 each for the excursion, lost their lives.
As the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board concluded a joint, fact-finding hearing on the sinking, the lawyers claimed the 60-foot wooden vessel should never have left its slip in Ridge that day.
But a breakdown in communications among the owner, insurance company and Coast Guard proved to be as deadly as all of the safety problems an insurance inspector found, they said.
The lawyers said the insurer, Insurance Company of North America, was partly to blame because its inspector, who surveyed the El Toro II five days before its sinking, found numerous safety problems with the boat, but failed to make those findings known to the owner, the Coast Guard, or his supervisors.
That inspector, Kim I. MacCartney, testified last week that he believed the El Toro was no longer fishing. He said that if he had known the boat was still operating, he would have placed it on a "port risk" status that would have prevented it from leaving the dock without approval of the insurance company.
The lawyers said owner Joseph C. Lore II, and his son, Clayton Lore, must share the blame because of how poorly they maintained the El Toro and other vessels in their fleet. The four other vessels in Mr. Lore's fleet had been placed on "port risk" status a few days before the El Toro's fatal outing.
Lawyers also said Clayton Lore, who was captain of the boat the day it sank, should have monitored weather reports more carefully.
The Coast Guard also was to blame, for failing to inspect thoroughly the fasteners of the boat at a dry dock inspection in the spring, and for failing to notify the insurer of problems the boat had, the lawyers said.
The boat went down because planks in the hull on the port side gave way, allowing water to flood the boat.
Yesterday, Coast Guard Cmdr. Glenn Anderson, who is overseeing the investigation, said he likely will recommend changes in Coast Guard regulations to prevent future accidents. He said the Coast Guard may need to require such boats to carry life rafts with bottoms instead of the buoyancy ring the El Toro II passengers clung to.
The commander said the Coast Guard also needed to review wiring requirements. Experts testified earlier that the current requirements could lead to corrosion and weakening of the nails and bolts that fastened the hull planks together.
The Coast Guard's requirements could have contributed to the accident, Commander Anderson conceded.
"What we're dealing with are regulations that were written decades ago," he said.
The Coast Guard's findings probably will not be made public for six months. The National Transportation Safety Board, conducting an independent investigation, probably will release findings within a year, officials said.
No civil suits have been filed in the sinking, although they are expected. Lawyers and Coast Guard officials said they did not believe criminal charges would be filed in the case.
Yesterday Joseph Lore said he was certain that Mr. MacCartney, the insurance inspector, was aware that the El Toro would be fishing on weekends through Dec. 19, but that he never said the boat was unsuitable to carry passengers.
Mr. Lore testified that his son told passengers to put on life jackets after he discovered water rising rapidly in the engine room and that he radioed the Coast Guard for help.
Believing help would be there in 10 to 15 minutes, Clayton Lore told passengers to abandon the ship and hold on to the life ring.
Although help soon arrived, it took the Coast Guard and Navy rescuers more than an hour to pull passengers from the water.
Mr. Lore described the passengers hanging onto the life ring in the frigid waters as the Coast Guard rescue boat retrieved one man floating alone, then went to the boat to pull three passengers from the cabin roof.
"After a half hour, people seemed to get desperate," Mr. Lore said. Then another half hour passed, he said, and "people began to get scared of dying of hypothermia."
Coast Guard officials said that the rescue operation took up to two hours.
After the hearing, Clayton Lore said he did not know of anything he could have done differently to prevent the accident.