Just before a retrial was to start, the operator of the Pier 34 nightclub that plunged into the Delaware River in May 2000 pleaded guilty yesterday in the deaths of the three women who drowned in the murky, debris-filled waters. The pier owner pleaded no contest.

Eli Karetny, 66, who operated the club, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering 43 other people who were injured in the collapse. Prosecutors, in turn, dropped charges of conspiracy and risking a catastrophe.

At the same time, Michael Asbell, 64, who owned the pier, pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, conspiracy, and risking a catastrophe. Though Asbell did not admit guilt, a no-contest plea has the same impact, in the eyes of the law, as a guilty plea.

The pleas bring an end to another chapter in the disastrous collapse of the pier seven years ago this week - on May 18, 2000. In 2004, the families of the three women and 40 people injured reached a $29.6 million settlement with the pier owner, the club operator, and other defendants named in dozens of lawsuits.

In September, after years of pretrial legal battles, the criminal case went to trial and ended in November when jurors could not agree on a verdict.

As a result of yesterday's pleas, the next chapter will focus on punishment.

Karetny and Asbell are scheduled to be sentenced June 22 by Common Pleas Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper - and both face possible prison terms, including 21/2 to 5 years for each of the three involuntary manslaughter charges.

For the families of the three women who died, yesterday's proceedings brought a measure of comfort after the first trial ended with a hung jury.

They said they were satisfied with the pleas but were still waiting - and hoping - for justice.

"I just had another Mother's Day without my daughter," said Mary Lou Rodriguez, whose daughter Monica Kristina Rodriguez was 21 when she died. "I'm praying that justice will be served."

The pleas were a "good thing," said Blanche White-Toole, mother of DeAnn White, who was 25. But still, she said, "I lost my daughter."

White, of Germantown, and Rodriguez, of Cherry Hill, were co-workers with Jean Marie Ferraro, 27, of Cherry Hill, at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden. The three had gone to the Heat nightclub at Pier 34 to celebrate various milestones - a first day on the job, a promotion, a coming birthday.

But about 8 p.m., the end of the pier collapsed without warning, sending dozens of horrified patrons into the murky river. The 43 injured included at least seven firefighters.

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

A key prosecution witness who examined the pier testified that he had warned both men earlier on the day of the tragedy that the pier was in imminent danger of collapse.

The defense, however, disputed that testimony, and contended the defendants got no such warning. The defense lawyers blamed the men who inspected and repaired the pier for shoddy work - and said that's what caused the collapse.

Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy said relatives of the victims viewed the pleas as a moral victory of sorts.

"There was no visible elation, but I think they took some solace that these guys admitted responsibility," said Conroy, who met with the families after the court proceeding.

Conroy said he intended to seek prison time for both men.

But how much time - and even whether incarceration is appropriate - is likely to be hotly debated at sentencing.

Defense lawyer Frank DeSimone, who represents Karetny, said he intended to present a "very persuasive case for nonconfinement."

DeSimone pointed out that the two charges to which Karetny pleaded guilty were misdemeanors, while the charges dropped were more serious felony charges.

A retrial would have been "life-threatening" for his client, who suffers from diabetes and heart problems, DeSimone said.

"We had to get this behind us," he said.

Thomas A. Bergstrom, who represents Asbell, said he also intended to argue against prison time. He called the disaster an "unintentional crime" and said, "It's not as though anyone set out to harm anyone."

He said his client's no-contest plea was an "honest plea" consistent with his testimony that he was never warned the pier could collapse.

Both defendants are well-known local businessmen with good reputations, he said, and that will come through at sentencing.

Bergstrom said the pleas were an effort to resolve the charges without another go-round in the courtroom.

"It's time, I think, to move on for everybody," Bergstrom said.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.