Tour boat capsize in underground cave wasn't the first, agency says; passenger recounts ordeal

Soon after a tour boat flipped over during a tour of a dimly lit cavern system, leaving one passenger dead, members of another group recalled a similar experience while taking the same tour eight years ago and questioned whether anything had been done since then to make the attraction safer.

News of the 2015 capsizing emerged as the investigation into Monday's accident continued — and a passenger who survived the most recent ordeal recounted how he fought to breathe under the upside down craft.

The flat-bottomed boat carrying local hospitality workers capsized during a tour of a historic underground water tunnel off the Erie Canal in the western New York city of Lockport.

Eight years earlier, clients and staff of the former Baker Victory Services ended up in the water when their boat also flipped, said John Pitts, spokesman for the agency, which has since been renamed OLV Human Services.

Few details about the incident were available, according to Pitts, who arrived the following year. He said it was unclear whether it was formally reported.

“I wish I knew more, but all I understand is that there was an incident where a boat had turned over and our staff and various individuals helped individuals out of the water to safety,” he said.

On Monday, one man died and 11 people were taken to hospitals, mostly with minor injuries, after the tour boat operated by Lockport Cave Tours capsized.

“By the time I realized what happened, the boat was on top of me and I couldn’t find any air pockets or anything. And I’m just trying to, like, breathe because I’m underwater,” survivor Daniel Morrissette told ABC's “Good Morning America” in an interview aired Tuesday.

The passenger who died also was trapped beneath the boat. Lockport police late Tuesday identified him as Harshad Shah. An online obituary from M.J. Colucci & Son Niagara Funeral Chapel identified Shah as a 65-year-old Niagara Falls resident who served as president of the Budget Host Inn in Niagara Falls.

“His wife remains in shock, unable to come to terms with this fatal event that unfolded before her eyes,” a statement from Shah’s family, tweeted by WRGZ, said. “We are all seeking answers to the why and how of this tragedy.”

Lockport Mayor Michelle Roman said during a news conference that the attraction, located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Niagara Falls, has operated since the mid-1970s without incident.

That's when Sheri Scavone said she “lost it.” She said her son, then 15, was on the boat that capsized in 2015 and is still traumatized by the experience he remembers vividly.

“Thankfully, this kid knew how to swim and was strong,” Scavone said by phone Tuesday, “but there was nothing to grab onto, the sides were slippery. It was pitch black. The boat was capsized.”

At the time, Scavone was only concerned with her son's well-being, she said. Now she wishes she hadn't let it go and is troubled that the tours have continued to operate without at least handing out life jackets.

The tour boat’s operator has not responded to requests for comment.

Samantha North told The Buffalo News that she also was on the 2015 tour as an employee of Baker Victory.

The boat became unbalanced and flipped midway through the tour, she said, after passengers were instructed to stand up and turn around for the return trip.

“It seemed like it took forever” to get out of the chilly water, she said, where passengers, purses, cellphones, keys and other belongings ended up.

Elizabeth Morrissette, who appeared on “GMA” alongside her husband, Daniel, said people were panicking and yelling loudly Monday as she and the other passengers were thrown into the water, which emergency officials said was between 5 feet and 6 feet deep.

Some passengers were able to get to safety themselves. Emergency crews used an inflatable boat to rescue about 16 others, fire officials said.

City of Lockport Police were investigating the accident. The mayor's office and fire chief did not respond to emails and texts seeking an update Tuesday.

The tours take visitors on an underground boat ride through a rough-hewn tunnel, which was blasted out in the 19th century to transport canal water as an industrial power source.