Charity, boat maker assign blame in fatal capsize

AP News
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Posted: Mar 30, 2011 3:24 AM
Charity, boat maker assign blame in fatal capsize

Law enforcement officials are staying mum as they investigate the cause of a sailing accident that killed two and dumped eight others into the cold water of San Diego Bay on Sunday.

The charity that operates free sailing trips for people with special needs blames a gust of wind for tipping over the 26-foot sailboat, while the boat's manufacturer raised questions about the number of people aboard during the accident.

Heart of Sailing Foundation's founder George Saidah was piloting the boat and frequently took nine passengers on trips with the craft, according to the Bloomington, Ind.-based charity's attorney and board president John Shean.

But Roger MacGregor, the maker of the sailboat, challenged the wisdom of putting 10 people onboard and questioned whether the water ballast, which helps the ship automatically right itself, was properly filled.

Shean insisted the ballast was full and contended the boat was not overloaded.

Chao Chen, 73, and his son, Jun Chen, 48, of San Diego, died in the accident. They were among seven members of one family aboard, said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque.

Shean identified the dead men as the relatives of an 11-year-old autistic boy who was one of nine guests on the excursion with the driver of the vessel, the charity said. One other disabled person was onboard.

San Diego Harbor Police Sgt. Brian Jensen didn't immediately return calls Tuesday. Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said his agency was aware of the accident but was not currently involved in the investigation.

U.S. Marine Chris Belt, 36, says he and two fellow sailors were among the first people to arrive at the scene after he spotted the overturned boat moments after it capsized Sunday.

Belt said he worked alongside two fellow sailors to pull people from frigid waters before local authorities arrived, until he noticed a man floating away from the boat face down.

Belt dove in try to save him, but the man was lifeless when Belt reached him and turned him over.

Belt said the man, who he believes to be Jun Chen based on his age, was not wearing a life vest.

Harbor Police Chief John Bolduc confirmed that some people aboard were not wearing life jackets, but it had not been determined how many. His agency is leading the investigation.

Shean said California law only requires children to wear life preservers.

Bolduc previously said investigators were looking into whether the boat was overloaded. The weight on board _ not the number of passengers _ would determine if that was a factor, he said.

Bolduc declined further comment Tuesday through spokesman Ron Powell.

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Online:

Heart of Sailing Foundation: http://www.heartofsailing.org/default.asp

MacGregor Yacht Corp.: http://www.macgregor26.com/

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AP writer Shaya Tayefe Mohajer contributed to this report from Los Angeles. Flaccus reported from Tustin, Calif.