A judge this afternoon sentenced the owner and the operator of the collapsed Pier 34 nightclub to a combination of house arrest and probation in connection with the 2000 accident in which three women drowned in the dark, debris-filled Delaware River.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper declined prosecutors' request to sentence Michael Asbell, 65, who owned the pier, and Eli Karetny, 66, who operated the club, to prison.

Asbell received 11 to 22 months of house arrest, followed by seven years' probation.

Karetny was sentenced to nine to 18 months of house arrest, followed by five years' probation.

The judge also ordered both men to form an entrepreneurial business program for young, low-income students to be named in honor of the victims.

Asbell pleaded no contest in May to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, conspiracy and risking a catastrophe. Karetny pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering 43 people injured in the collapse.

Today's sentencing hearing, which was marked by passionate arguments by prosecutors and defense lawyers, ends a hard-fought courtroom battle over whether the collapse was a tragic accident or the result of criminal behavior.

"What this is, your honor, is protracted, sustained negligence," Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy said at the end of a spirited hour-long argument during which he asked the judge to sentence the pair to three to 15 years in prison.

Both men faced possible sentences of 2 1/2 to five years for each of the three charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Family members of the three women who died - Monica Kristina Rodriguez, 21, DeAnn White, 25, and Jean Marie Ferraro, 27 - were in the courtroom, as they have been throughout the case.

The three women, who worked at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden, had gone to the Heat nightclub at Pier 34 in May 2000 to celebrate various milestones - a first day on the job, a promotion, a coming birthday.

But at about 8 p.m., the end of the pier suddenly collapsed, sending dozens of patrons careening into the murky river. The 43 injured included at least seven firefighters called to the scene.

Prosecutors contended that Asbell, of Merion, and Karetny, of Cherry Hill, had been warned repeatedly about the pier's dire condition but did not spend the money needed for major repairs.

The defense, however, contended that the defendants were never warned the day of the collapse that the pier was in imminent danger. Defense lawyers placed blame on the men who inspected and repaired the pier for sloppy work - and said that's what caused the collapse.