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Judge orders rafting company to defend itself (update)

October 12, 2012
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN , Associated Press

ALBANY - A northern New York whitewater rafting company has been ordered to court next week to answer state allegations it fails to provide safe excursions and should be shut down, following the drowning of an Ohio woman on an outing in the southern Adirondacks.

Judge Richard Giardino told the Hudson River Rafting Co. in North Creek to run no more trips before the Oct. 19 hearing, though the usual rafting season on the upper Hudson's whitewater ended Monday. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, citing persistent problems at the company, filed the complaint seeking a court order to at least temporarily shut the business.

"For years and continuing into the present, respondents have advertised that they provide 'safe' guided river rafting excursions," the complaint said. "Such advertisements by respondents have been false and misleading in that repeatedly respondents have provided guides who were unqualified, intoxicated, or provided no guides at all for rafting excursions on the subject rivers which are so dangerous that qualified, professional guides are deemed necessary for consumers' safety."

Attorney Jason Britt, who represents Hudson River Rafting owner Patrick Cunningham, declined to comment. Calls to Cunningham, longtime operator of the company offering trips on the Hudson, Sacandaga, Moose and Black rivers in northern New York, were not returned.

Thursday's order came two weeks after the drowning of 53-year-old Tamara Blake of Columbus during an outing by the company. State police allege rafting guide Rory Fay was drunk and have accused him of criminally negligent homicide. Authorities said Blake fell into rapids on the Indian River and her body was found five miles downstream in the Hudson.

State Police Capt. John Tibbits said the coroner's report showed Blake died of asphyxiation due to freshwater drowning. Their information is that she wore a flotation vest, wetsuit and helmet, and it is difficult to say exactly how she drowned, he said.

The 17-mile trip that passes through Hudson River Gorge includes Class III and sometimes Class IV rapids, with whitewater running fast among and over rocks and boulders, interspersed with stretches of slower moving flatwater.

Essex County Coroner Walter Marvin said Blake's life jacket was securely fastened and her helmet was on. He said there were no obvious markings to indicate she had hit anything. It was not a typical drowning, he said.

The guide and Richard Clar, also 53 and from Columbus, were thrown into the water when the raft hit rapids about 20 minutes after starting the excursion on Sept. 27 at Indian Lake, 80 miles northwest of Albany, police say. Clar was able to cling to the raft and steer it to the river bank while Fay swam to shore.

Hamilton County District Attorney Marsha Purdue said Friday no other criminal charges had been brought against Fay or the company, though the case remained under investigation. The 37-year-old from North Creek was still in jail Friday, unable to make the $50,000 cash bail, she said. He pleaded not guilty.

Meanwhile, Purdue has raised an old reckless endangerment case against Cunningham, who was accused in 2010 of sending out rafts with no guides and had agreed to certain conditions in order to have that case adjourned. She alleges Cunningham violated those terms by leaving clients in a raft he was guiding in May, while they traveled the final major Hudson rapids, called the Bus Stop, and he walked the last stretch of the trip along railroad tracks.

If a judge finds Cunningham violated the agreement, the court could reinstate two misdemeanor charges, Purdue said.

A call to Cunningham's attorney in that case was not immediately returned.

Schneiderman's complaint included an affidavit from a state forest ranger, who said he had cited the company's guides numerous times over the past five years for infractions, including guiding without a license and driving customers in a bus without a driver's license.



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