Overloading was the primary cause of the boating accident last July Fourth in Oyster Bay in which three children drowned, an investigation by the Nassau County district attorney's office has found.
With 27 people aboard the 34-foot Silverton cabin cruiser, the Kandi Won was barely stable in calm water, according to a 53-page report released Wednesday.
A stability analysis conducted as part of the yearlong investigation determined that a wave or boat wake 2 feet high, striking the vessel from the side, would cause it to capsize.
That's what happened that night, after a fireworks display, as the crowded boat was returning to Huntington amid hundreds of other vessels, the DA's report concluded.
"The Kandi Won capsized and sank as a result of being overloaded and apparently encountering a 90-degree wave" -- one perpendicular to its direction of travel, the report obtained by Newsday states. "The combination of the weight, its distribution and the angle of the incoming wave each contributed to making the capsizing of the Kandi Won inevitable."
Despite the overloading, District Attorney Kathleen Rice in January ruled out criminal charges against the owner and operator. Rice then cited gaping holes in the maritime regulatory system and contributory design flaws in the vessel. The county did not state the cause of the accident until now.
The report quotes Guy Denigris -- a friend of boat owner Kevin Treanor, who steered the boat from Huntington to the fireworks display -- as saying the boat did not handle properly.
Denigris told a police officer: "He thought the vessel had water in its bilge, or, as an afterthought now, maybe a lot of weight on board, because the vessel had been listing back and forth."
According to the DA's findings, an examination of the boat by the Nassau County Police Marine Bureau ruled out the Kandi Won taking on water before the accident.
The report, however, cites some design flaws that contributed to the tragedy. The sliding door to the cabin locked when slammed shut during the capsizing, and furniture in the cabin, not attached to floor, could have shifted and made the boat even more unstable.
Rice's office recommends changes in federal and state laws to require that boats display capacity limit information and powerboat operators in New York pass a boating safety course.
The report also calls for better coordination of marine enforcement agencies to speed their response to accidents and for dive gear and trained divers to be more readily available in emergencies.
"An exhaustive investigation utilizing nationally recognized experts found that a unique combination of circumstances caused this tragedy," Rice said in a statement.
"Prosecutors from my office have collaborated with experts to examine the gaping holes in the maritime regulatory system. We prepared the attached report detailing the findings of the Nassau County Police Department’s investigation and our comprehensive reform recommendations to improve boating safety at the federal, state, and local levels."
"The report confirms what we already knew -- that boat was overcrowded," said Michael Della, the Ronkonkoma attorney for Paul and Lisa Gaines, whose daughter died on the boat. "It also reinforces the importance of capacity limits and safety training."
Joy Treanor, whose daughter died on the Kandi Won, said, "There needs to be more cooperation and organization between agencies," especially since the Coast Guard and some enforcement agencies have cut their patrols.
"Long Island needs to be better equipped for communication and organization during special events and emergencies," she added.
James Mercante, the attorney for the owner who contends the boat wasn't overcrowded, said there were "contributing factors" not cited by the DA that can be explored in expected civil litigation. A design flaw in the bilge of the boat, he said, could allow water to be trapped on one side, making the vessel unstable.
"There can be more than one cause of a marine accident," he said.
Neil Gallagher, a marine engineering professor at the Webb Institute in Glen Cove, performed the stability analysis on the water last October.
According to the report, he found that "the boat as loaded at the time of the incident had marginal stability in flat water. However, in beam [90-degree] waves of only two feet, the boat had inadequate stability to remain upright and was likely to capsize."
Push for tougher rules
Boating experts had suspected that overcrowding caused the accident.
"Too many people onboard," Dave Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, said Monday.
Gerr had conducted his own stability analysis of the Kandi Won based on simulations. "Too many people -- too much weight -- high up," he said.
When the Kandi Won capsized, it spilled most of the 27 people on board -- a dozen adults and 15 children and teenagers -- into the water. The three who died -- cousins David Aureliano, 12, of Kings Park, and Harlie Treanor, 11, of Huntington Station, and family friend Victoria Gaines, 7, of Huntington -- were trapped in the cabin with David's parents, who managed to escape.
Harlie's father, Kevin Treanor, owned the boat. Sal Aureliano, David's uncle, was steering the boat for his brother-in-law when he said it hit a large wake.
There were four adults and three children up on the flying bridge, a steering station on top of the cabin.
The Oyster Bay tragedy received national attention, spurring action by legislators and boating safety groups.
New laws, more boaters taking safety classes and added enforcement at large maritime events have made Long Island waters safer since the accident, experts and officials said.
Over the past year, besides raising consciousness about the need for training and safer boating, the sinking of the Kandi Won has produced tangible results.
Suffolk County last fall passed a law requiring adults operating powerboats to take a boating safety class. The State Legislature two weeks ago passed a less stringent mandatory education law that would supersede the Suffolk law if signed by the governor. It would require anyone born after 1996 to take a course to operate a powerboat starting next May.
Boating safety experts agree with the DA's report that the new law isn't strong enough. "It takes way too long to phase in," Huntington senior harbormaster Harry Acker said last week.
On the town level, Huntington passed a law allowing temporary 5 mph speed zones to be imposed in areas where there are events that attract many boaters. This July Fourth will be the second time the town has implemented the restriction.
The Coast Guard only sets maximum capacities for boats smaller than 20 feet. After the accident, the industry standards group, the nonprofit American Boat and Yacht Council, considered voluntarily increasing its threshold from the current 26 feet but decided there were not enough accidents on larger pleasure boats to warrant the change.
Last fall, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to require the Coast Guard to set capacity limits for larger pleasure boats. The bill has not been voted out of committee.
The Suffolk law and the publicity over the accident has boosted attendance at safe boating classes given by safety groups such as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadrons.
The Bay Constable Benevolent Association used grant money to buy underwater rescue gear that it is donating to Hempstead, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Huntington to speed up the recovery of people trapped in overturned or sunken boats.