Sunken holiday boat was illegal

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THE PLEASURE boat that sank in a tranquil Spanish lake on Thursday, drowning 20 elderly French holiday-makers, had been illegally modified to enhance its performance and capacity, making "tragedy absolutely inevitable", a marine engineer's report found.

The electric-driven catamaran La Oca had been equipped with a special high-power engine, and six ventilation holes to cool it were cut illicitly into the boat just inches above the waterline, according to the report by the engineer, commissioned by Banyoles municipality after the stricken vessel was refloated on Friday evening. These holes let in the water that caused the tragedy.

The upgrading of the engine and the heavy batteries needed to power it added an extra four tons to the weight of the vessel, and unbalanced it so that the stern lay deeper in the water. To correct the imbalance, water was let in to the hull at the prow to act as a counterweight, so that the six 3ft-wide ventilation holes - one each side, two at the front and two at the back - gaped just 6in above the water level when the boat was empty. These were "very grave modifications", the report said.

When the boat was refloated, water that drained from the front was oxidised and discoloured, suggesting it had been there some time. Further, the seats were not secured to the deck but scattered at random. This apparently enabled the owners to take on more passengers and to clear the deck for dances and parties for which the boat was not designed.

The boat was licensed to carry a maximum of 80 passengers at a time: 141 were on board for the fatal final voyage. The boat went down in less than two minutes when water gushed through the rear ventilation holes as passengers tried in vain to prevent themselves and the uncontrollable torrent of chairs from slipping down with it.

The owners of the boat company, Baldomero Gayola and Simon Rodriguez, were interrogated by a magistrate in nearby Girona last Friday on suspicion of gross negligence resulting in death. The two men, who are father- and son-in-law, remain at liberty for the moment, pending further investigations next week.

The mayor of Banyoles, Joan Solana, said it never occurred to the local authorities to check the number of passengers' tickets sold for each trip.