Accident

Focus shifts to Lake Conroe paddle boat safety after double-decker capsized

The Lake Conroe Queen is seen being hitched to the back of a tow boat by Lewis Towing & Salvage, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Lake Conroe. The Lake Conroe Queen capsized Saturday near Regency Point during a thunderstorm.
Gustavo Huerta, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

A paddle boat business found its inaugural season on Lake Conroe moored after its double-decker flipped on a recent cruise carrying 53 people, one of whom later died.

The incident appears to have brought on a slight dip in tour boat bookings on the lake and incurred the vessel’s owners a million-dollar personal injury lawsuit. Businesses and officials on the lake, meanwhile, are assuring visitors this is an isolated case and that safety regulations are enforced.

“This was really an unusual sort of rare storm event,” said Jace Houston, general manager of the San Jacinto River Authority, which regulates much of Lake Conroe.

The engine-powered Lake Conroe Queen, 35 years old and fashioned after 1860s riverboats, had been operating on its namesake since June. Then winds producing 4 to 5-foot waves on Aug. 14 reportedly blew it to its side.

Those aboard, including children, ended up on a shallow spot off the Regency Point townhouse complex in the southern end of the lake. Some of the residents at the complex rescued passengers struggling in the water.

Passenger Karl Katzenberger, 80, of Montgomery, died of cardiac issues later at a hospital, however.

“Obviously, it was a very quick storm that blew up. No one even saw it on the radar,” said Lake Conroe Queen owner Dale Shaver when reached by phone Aug. 20 before leaving the call on hold.

A day short of a week since the tip over, the wrecker service Lewis Towing & Salvage transported the Lake Conroe Queen to the launching dock of the Montgomery County Precinct 1 Constable’s marine division.

From there, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department would take over the boat as part of their investigation, Pct. 1 Sgt. Joe Sclider said at the time. As of Tuesday, Texas PWD did not have any updates on the investigation as it remained ongoing, according to a spokeswoman.

Businesses respond

Operating tours on Lake Conroe for the last 40 years, the 375-passenger Southern Empress is an authentic paddle boat also featuring a top deck. The 289-ton, 131-foot-long and 40-foot-wide boat had to evacuate 100 passengers when it got stuck on a sandbar in March 2015, a report by The Courier detailed.

It previously got stuck on a sandbar in 2005, leaving 50 passengers stranded for four hours, the story mentioned.

Jeff Taggart has owned the Southern Empress since 2016. He said though the flat bottom boat got stuck on the lake again in September 2019, a passenger’s life has never been at risk.

Since the Lake Conroe Queen’s widely reported turmoil, Taggart noted there has been a lull in business.

“We still have people booking, but the phones are a lot quieter,” he said.

Taggart described the winds the Lake Conroe Queen came across before capsizing as a “pop-up storm.” He too said nothing pulled up on the radar that evening. While in the boat’s dining room past 7 p.m., the captain told a stunned Taggart they were on a weather hold.

He remembers the day having light winds before he walked out and observed rain and winds gusting at 20 mph. Opening his mobile weather app, he saw it said there were only 3 mph winds in effect.

“Had we left on time at 7 o’clock, we would have been out on the water and not known,” Taggart said.

Built in 1999, the Little Palms yacht operates public and private events on its open air and climate controlled decks out of Waterpoint Marina on Lake Conroe’s southern shore. Lake Conroe Events owner James Winkler took possession of the 80-foot-long boat in 2013. He caps passenger boarding at 60 people.

The Little Palms had completed its cruise when the windstorm swept the lake the evening the Lake Conroe Queen tipped over. But Winkler still recalls a windstorm from four years ago.

“We hugged one side of the cove to where the wind was kind of going over the trees and over us, so we weren’t in the action of it,” Winkler said about the weather episode which they waited out for 30 minutes, pointing out the Little Palm crew in those instances will take to a cove or anchor down or find somewhere the wind is not as choppy.

Regulations carried out

The Little Palm and the Southern Empress crew members undergo regular training. Passengers receive spoken safety messages before departure and both boats maintain a manifest on all cruises, Taggart and Winkler said. The constable’s marine division and local fire officials will do surprise inspections too, the men added.

Game wardens annually inspect for safety equipment, including life jackets and ring buoys, on boats exceeding 30 feet in length, carrying more than six passengers and having a staff and operating crew, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Commander Cody Jones.

Texas PWD expects specific ratios between passengers and crew members, one of which needs to be CPR-certified, and for all staff manning the watercraft to undergo certified boater education, Jones noted. The department also conducts mandatory drug and alcohol testing following any crashes, he mentioned.

These commercial boats are required by TPWD to have a minimum $300,000 liability insurance, Jones pointed out.

An estimated 125 businesses operating on Lake Conroe’s waters are expected to comply with SJRA insurance requirements, the river authority’s general manager, Jace Houston, explained.

This ensures “if there ever is an accident, the public, the people that just come here to recreate, are not left without some sort of recourse. They have some place they can go to have their injuries taken care of or their damages compensated,” Houston said. “We tell companies you can’t come here and do business if you’re not gonna protect the public by carrying insurance.”

Because of its size, the Southern Empress undergoes inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard every two years, Taggart said, adding the boat’s captains are licensed through the service branch.

Civil action taken

A lawsuit filed Aug. 19 in Harris County, argues owners caused the Lake Conroe Queen to capsize through negligence and committed a breach of contract for failing to complete a sunset cruise. The suit is asking for more than $1 million in damages to be determined by a jury.

Houston attorney Ryan MacLeod is representing eight plaintiffs, six from Harris County and two from Montgomery County, he said in an Aug. 20 interview. MacLeod said clients’ ages range from their mid 20s to their 70s.

Passengers were only given life jackets about 15 seconds before the boat flipped with most unable to secure them on themselves, while others never received one, MacLeod said. Those on the top deck, were never instructed to go to the bottom deck during the storm, the attorney added.

The suit contends plaintiffs inhaled the boat’s leaking diesel in the water the passengers were stranded in. MacLeod said some of his clients have fractured ribs and one sustained a torn ACL.

As good Samaritans pulled passengers out of the water, MacLeod said Shaver and the other three crew members immediately left the area.

“There was no going around checking on people,” the attorney said. The crew “hightailed got out of there.”

MacLeod shared a client he is representing in the suit remarked while aboard the Lake Conroe Queen that weather in the distance looked bad and asked if the boat should turn around. Owner Bill Shaver, MacLeod said, announced to passengers the storm would not affect the boat and the crew proceeded onward.

“You gotta have proper emergency response protocols. It’s not enough just to say, ‘Well, this is what you should do in an emergency.’ Put it in writing in policy and procedure. You have to actually be able to carry it out,” MacLeod said.

Despite the tumult the Lake Conroe Queen has been mired in, a presumptive riverboat rival is rooting for at least the boat owners’ eventual commercial success.

“I hope they come back,” said Jeff Taggart, the owner of the Southern Empress. “I hope they don’t disappear from the lake.”

Written by Jose R. Gonzalez

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