1 dead after tour boat capsizes inside Erie Canal water tunnel cave in western New York
Jun 12, 2023, 10:30 AM | Updated: 3:00 pm
A boat carrying hospitality workers capsized Monday during a tour of a historic underground cavern system built to carry water from the Erie Canal beneath the western New York city of Lockport, killing one person who became trapped beneath the overturned vessel, officials said.
All 29 people on board the flat-bottomed boat operated by Lockport Cave Tours were thrown into water between 5 feet and 6 feet deep when the craft tipped over toward the end of the roughly 300-foot route.
The tours take visitors on an underground boat ride through a dimly lit, rough-hewn tunnel, which was blasted out in the 19th century to transport canal water as an industrial power source.
Some passengers dunked into the water were able to get to safety on their own. Rescue crews using an inflatable boat rescued about 16 others, Lockport Fire Chief Luca Quagliano said.
Jeremy Swiatowy, 42, watched as rescue workers breached the wall to the tunnel with a sledgehammer before shimmying through the hole to reach people inside.
“The water in the caves is super cold,” he said.
When rescuers reached the boat, some passengers had climbed on top of its upturned hull, Quagliano said at a news conference.
Authorities did not immediately release the name of the man who died. His wife was taken to a hospital.
A total of 11 people were brought to hospitals, mostly with minor injuries, the fire chief said.
All of the passengers were hospitality employees from across Niagara County, according to Andrea Czopp, chief operating officer at Destination Niagara USA. The agency organized the outing as part of a familiarization tour, she said.
Authorities said the specially built motorboat holds up to 40 people, who sit in rows about four across. During the ride, about two to three feet of space separate the boat and cave walls on either side.
Nobody on board had a life preserver, authorities said. It was unclear whether they were required or offered.
The company that operates the tours did not immediately respond to phone calls and an email seeking comment.
Lockport Mayor Michelle Roman said the attraction, located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Niagara Falls, has operated since the mid-1970s, without incident. It will remain closed during an investigation.
“This is very sad for everybody,” she said.
Police Chief Steven Abbott said the cave and canal are private property.
“We have a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said.
Video footage from the scene outside the Lockport Cave office showed one person talking as she was loaded onto an ambulance. Others wrapped in white towels were being escorted to a bus as a steady rain fell.
The water tunnel was once the subject of an episode of the Syfy network show “Ghost Hunters.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York City and Michael Hill in Albany contributed to this report.