Boat disaster charges bring relief, anger

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When their 19-year-old son, Eddie, died in the sinking of the El Toro II fishing boat last December, Ed and Betty Philips, along with others in St. Mary's County, pressed for a grand jury investigation.

Now, a year after the boat was swamped by a storm in the Chesapeake Bay, the county grand jury has indicted the boat's owner, Joseph C. Lore II, 54, and his son, Clayton S. Lore, 31, the boat's captain, on 21 counts of manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

"Justice hasn't been done yet, but this is the first step," said Ed Philips of Piney Point, whose oldest son was a crewman on the 58-foot boat that sank off Point Lookout Dec. 5, 1993, when it was hit with 35-mph winds and seas churning as high as 8 feet.

"I'm innocent of everything," the elder Mr. Lore said during an interview yesterday. "It's ridiculous even to have this brought forward. I just don't know what to say and where they came up with this," he said referring to the indictments.

He continues to operate a four-boat charter service out of Ridge, near the mouth of the Potomac River. The business completed its season last weekend.

The indictments, handed up last week, include three charges of manslaughter by vessel in connection with the deaths of Mr. Philips and two passengers, Robert B. Shipe, 45, of Mechanicsville and Horace I. Smith, 64, of Washington, and one count of reckless endangerment in connection with each of the 18 surviving passengers.

Each manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, and each endangerment count is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The indictment came three months after the National Transportation Safety Board exonerated the two men in the accident. The board said the boat began to sink because the fasteners holding its wooden hull together had become so corroded that planks separated, allowing water to rush in. That occurred, the board said, because of the lack of effective inspection and maintenance procedures.

The elder Mr. Lore defended the seaworthiness of the El Toro II yesterday, saying, "If I didn't think [the boat] was all right, I wouldn't have been there." Both he and his son were aboard the El Toro on the fateful trip into Virginia waters in quest of rockfish and bluefish.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police concluded two weeks after the accident that the case should be be marked "suspended" because no criminal activity had been found.

A Coast Guard investigation found evidence of negligence on the part of Clayton Lore for not monitoring weather broadcasts during the voyage. But two weeks ago, the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Baltimore found insufficient evidence to support the charge, said Lt. Cmdr. Marc Cruder, the office's senior investigating officer.

George Sparling, a lawyer for both Lores, said yesterday, "I don't see how this turned into a criminal case, but it has. It's a big leap to move to a criminal charge of gross negligence, which is a conscious disregard for life."

He said both men will plead not guilty when the trial begins. That is scheduled for April.

Philip H. Dorsey, a lawyer for the estate of Mr. Shipe, one of the El Toro II victims, and several survivors said he expects to file a civil suit soon against the Lores, the Coast Guard and CIGNA, the Philadelphia-based insurer of the boat.

Kim I. MacCartney, a CIGNA insurance inspector, said in a report three days before the sinking that the El Toro "may be the worst Coast Guard-inspected boat I have seen." He declared it unfit to operate or carry people, citing rotted wood and deteriorated structural bolts. The boat passed its annual Coast Guard inspection in April 1993.

Mr. MacCartney told The Sun last year that he would have immediately recommended that his company suspend the boat's insurance, but that he was led to believe by the elder Mr. Lore's wife that the El Toro II would not be going out again until the spring.

Survivors, who were plunged into 54-degree water, blame the Lores for the accident.

"I think they knew the boat had some problems," said Christopher James Falk, 31, of Herndon, Va.

"That boat should have been able to handle [the storm] if it was in good shape," said William Barton, 38, of Burtonsville, who was in the water for two hours.

Three weeks after the accident, the Coast Guard ordered its officers nationwide to perform more rigorous inspections of wooden boats in hopes of detecting the kind of flaws that contributed to the sinking of the El Toro II.

In September, the Coast Guard exonerated its personnel of misconduct in the routine inspection of the El Toro that the missed corroded fasteners that contributed to the vessel's sinking.

The Coast Guard report also absolved its personnel of any misconduct in the rescue, although survivors and the victims' families continue to charge that the Coast Guard took too long to respond.

"The Coast Guard completely failed to do their duty," said Mr. Philips, who also said a State Police helicopter wasted precious time by not joining in the search for survivors.

State Police spokesman Lt. Gregory M. Shipley said a jet helicopter from St. Mary's Airport was dispatched 35 minutes after the accident but that the pilot had to land because of the severe weather.

Two larger helicopters were immediately dispatched, including one from Andrews Air Force Base, Lieutenant Shipley said. Their crews searched the waters around the El Toro II and plucked two survivors from the water.

Lt. Cmdr. Dennis Sens, senior controller at the 5th District Coast Guard Station in Portsmouth, Va., strongly defended the rescue efforts. A Coast Guard review found that the response was appropriate, he said.

"The crews did a tremendous job at great risk to their own lives," Commander Sens said. "Like some of the survivors, several of our crew members suffered from hypothermia."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, has said he will push for a congressional hearing on the sinking and rescue.

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