It’s a short walk from the entrance of Ri Ra Irish Pub to the edge of Portland Harbor — 30 paces, to be exact.

So it surprised no one Tuesday when searchers pulled the body of Nathan Bihlmaier, 31, from Portland Harbor, two days after he’d been bounced from Ri Ra for having too much to drink.

But even as his family mourns and Harvard Business School adjusts this week’s commencement program to memorialize a young man who was supposed to receive his master’s in business administration on Thursday, one question lingers: Who was responsible for ensuring that Bihlmaier, in his clearly inebriated state, stayed away from the water?

The easy answer, of course, is Bihlmaier himself — at least before his blood-alcohol level prevented him from knowing a dangerous situation when he saw one.

Then there are the two friends who were with Bihlmaier on Saturday evening at Ri Ra but lost track of him after he was ejected from the bar at 11:30 p.m. Tragically, they exchanged cellphone calls with their lost buddy as they later tried to track him down — until his cell signal suddenly vanished around 1 a.m.

Finally, there’s the bar.

Did Ri Ra’s employees take any steps to keep their intoxicated customer out of harm’s way once they determined he was in no shape to keep partying? Or did the bar’s responsibility end the moment Bihlmaier was sent packing?

“We’re not commenting,” a bartender at Ri Ra said just before Bihlmaier’s body was found at the end of Custom House Wharf, two piers down from the Irish pub.

Hard to blame them for that. Especially when you consider the mixed messages found on Page 12 of “A Guide for Bars and Restaurants Serving Alcohol.”

Published in 2010 by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, the lengthy primer offers a template for liquor-serving establishments that want to stay in business and out of criminal and civil court.

Under the heading “Preventing Alcohol Service to Visibly Intoxicated Persons,” the guide cautions, “It is unlawful to sell or allow consumption of liquor to a visibly intoxicated person, or allow an intoxicated person to remain on the premise.”

No ambiguity there — if someone appears drunk, shut him off and show him the door.

Yet at the bottom of the same page, the state’s guide offers these words of advice: “A visibly intoxicated person leaving your premise is the biggest threat for tragedy, violations and civil suit under the Maine Liquor Liability Act. Your establishment’s policy should make that clear to your staff.”

Which leads us to the guide’s model policy: If a visibly intoxicated person has been shut off and appears to have no safe way home, it states, the staff “will accompany them to a secure area of the bar/restaurant” with no access to alcohol.

There, the policy continues, “they will be offered food, non-alcoholic beverages and afforded time to sober up. The visibly intoxicated individual will be monitored at all times.”

All of this when state law says he can’t “remain on the premise?”

“Maine law and my opinion have been at odds for many years,” said Richard Grotton, CEO and president of the Maine Restaurant Association.

Grotton’s organization offers a state-certified training program, called “ServSafe,” for businesses that serve alcohol. It includes what Grotton calls the “best practice” of not just denying a visibly intoxicated patron more alcohol, but also ensuring that the person is “put into some sort of position where they’re protected.”

Problem is, the law says get rid of him. And if a bar, say Ri Ra, goes strictly by the book, Grotton said, “they’re going to get him out of there … Which sets up the very conflict we’re talking about.”

Frank Lyons, a retired Maine liquor enforcement officer who now trains alcohol servers through his South Portland-based firm B.C. Consultants, said which way a bar or restaurant goes often depends on where it goes for training.

Training programs (the state now certifies seven) are “all over the board” on how to deal with intoxicated customers, Lyons said, from “slowing down” the flow of drinks to ejecting drunk patrons as quickly as possible.

Lyons’ policy?

“When in doubt, don’t serve,” he replied. And if someone’s too drunk to be safely sent on his way, “isolate them” from the rest of the establishment until they have time to sober up.

The biggest question for a bar when tragedy occurs, noted Lyons, is, “What did you do that was reasonable to prevent it from happening? And the last thing you want to tell a judge and a jury is, ‘I did nothing.’“

Time will tell whether Bihlmaier’s death even ends up in court — at a press conference shortly after the body was found, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Ri Ra “followed the law (with Bihlmaier). Somebody was visibly intoxicated and they asked him to leave.”

That said, even Sauschuck found himself caught between what the law mandates and what common sense dictates.

“We think that responsible bar owners and bar employees would take the next step to make sure that an individual is safely on their way,” he said. “They will make the argument, though, ‘How far does that go?’ And I think that’s a valid argument for them to make.”‘

As the police chief spoke to the media horde Tuesday, several employees watched from Ri Ra’s nearby window. What, you couldn’t help but wonder, must be going through their minds right now?

Lyons, the consultant, said they can only hope that the pub has a written policy for dealing with people like Bihlmaier. And if it does, that they followed it.

“It’s a tragedy,” Lyons said. “But they’re not serving Pepsi-Cola down there.”

Note: The second paragraph of this article was updated at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, May 23, 2012 to clarify the time between Nathan Bihlmaier’s leaving Ri Ra and the finding of his body.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]