Mayday! Victims recall deadly Pa. duck boat crash
PHILADELPHIA - March 13, 2011 (WPVI) -- Tug boat pilot Matt Devlin typically worked a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off cycle along with his crewmates, but agreed to board The Resource in Philadelphia a week early last summer as a fill-in.
The Resource pushed a 250-foot-long city barge up and down a short stretch of the Delaware River each day, picking up sludge and depositing it at a treatment plant downriver.
Tug captains describe the job as 90 percent boredom and 10 percent terror. The latter because of the obstacles that pop up in busy harbors like Philadelphia, where commercial vessels share the water with meandering sailboats, speedy jet skis and frequent tour boats.
"Each time on that water is a new experience," Ride the Ducks captain Gary Fox told investigators after his amphibious tour boat was struck last summer by The Resource, with Devlin at the helm. The July 7 crash killed two Hungarian students on the duck boat.
Transcripts released this week by the National Transportation Safety Board reveal the confluence of events that led up to the 2:37 p.m. crash on the scorching hot summer day.
Devlin, soon after starting his two-week stint that day, learned that his young son had just suffered a life-threatening reaction to anesthesia during routine eye surgery. Despite a company ban on personal cell phone use while on duty, he had made or received 21 calls since taking the wheel at noon.
Fox had shut down his engine after seeing smoke at about 2:27 p.m., and was anchored in the shipping channel 150 feet from Penn's Landing, waiting for a rescue boat. The mood on board was nonetheless jovial during the delay, until Fox realized that his calls to the tug were going unanswered.
The 2,100-ton barge was headed straight at them.
Only then did he order his 35 passengers to start reaching for the life jackets secured in an overhead canopy, passengers said, according to transcripts released Monday in the NTSB's 4,400-page report.
"We should have been told (as) soon as that thing copped out to get those life jackets on," said passenger Kevin Grace of St. Louis, who held onto his 9-year-old daughter's hair to stay together in the river. She went into shock during the head count that followed at a waterfront museum, and was treated the next day for a mild concussion.
"My heart goes out to the captain of that boat, but that was an egregious error," Grace, 50, told investigators in witness interviews conducted days after the crash.
The father and daughter were seated two rows from the front, across the aisle from the Hungarian students who perished.
Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16, had been unalarmed by the situation unfolding in the minutes before their death, as were most if not all of the other passengers, the interviews reveal.
"We were joking around with them ... and they were laughing ... and talking to each other quietly," said passenger Lisa Ashery, seated in the first row, in front of Prem and Schwendtner.
The pair were among a group of 13 students and two teachers visiting the U.S. through an exchange organized by a suburban Philadelphia church, Marshalltown United Methodist Church.
The Hungarians told investigators that they remembered little of Fox's instructions at the start of the tour, near the Liberty Bell, about the life vests. Fox himself said he typically told groups, as part of his gag-filled script, that they would never need them.
Hungarian teacher Timea Mereticzki, in the last row, thought Fox looked increasingly concerned as they sat idle.
"He looked a bit frightened, and I felt it like a panic, but Barbara was next to me and told (me it was) OK, this is just the part of the show, so don't be worried about that," she told investigators. So she seized the chance to take more pictures.
Fox, according to a passenger up front, was soon shouting "Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!" on his radio, trying to tell The Resource to change course. But he was getting no response. And his mind was reeling.
"I know this is going to be a major, major catastrophe and my mind starts just - things just start slowing down because this is like you're laying in your front yard and a two-story house is about to slide over top of you," he told the panel of NTSB and Coast Guard investigators, who were joined by officials or lawyers with Ride the Ducks, K-Sea Transportation Inc., which owns The Resource, and others.
"Do I have a knife? ... Do I have enough time to try to cut the anchor line? Can I get the DUKW (duck boat) restarted and try to maneuver out of the way?" Fox, then 58, of Turnersville, N.J., recalled.
Devlin, in the final minutes before the crash, was on a call to his mother's home, according to cell phone company records detailed in the 4,400-page NTSB report.
He spoke only briefly with Coast Guard officers who boarded the tug shortly after the crash, saying he had seen a duck boat at one point but had lost sight of it. He has not cooperated with investigators since then, on the advice of a criminal lawyer retained for him that night by K-Sea.
But K-Sea's chief operating officer told investigators that a distraught Devlin had asked to talk to him privately that night.
As the two men sat in the small galley, Devlin told him about the family emergency.
"His son had had a surgery which was supposed to be relatively minor and routine, that became very serious because his son had a bad reaction to the anesthetic and almost died, I think is what he said," Tom Sullivan told investigators. "I asked him, 'How is your son now?' He said, `He's OK. He's stable.'
"So I said, you know, `Oh, my God, you know, you had an unbelievably bad day,' and he said, `Well, yeah, I agreed to come in and work extra and, you know, it just turned out to be a real disaster."'
Devlin, 34, did not return a call to what appeared to be a home number in New York state, while his lawyer, Frank DeSimone, declined to comment this week on the report.
"He's an experienced mate," Ben Woods, the crew master on the tug that day, said of Devlin, according to the NTSB report. "Never heard anybody say anything bad about him."
Lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi represents the parents of Prem and Schwendtner.
"While I empathize with anyone who's dealing with a family medical emergency, that doesn't give them the right to create a medical emergency for another family," Mongeluzzi said Friday. "That's why we have another master 20 feet below deck, ready, willing and able to take over."
The tug's five-person crew included two pairs of pilots and deckhands, who rotated shifts every six hours round the clock, and an engineer.
The deckhand is supposed to be deployed as a lookout on the barge anytime the pilot's visibility is compromised, whether due to fog, blind spots, or the inability to see over a high-sitting barge, maritime experts say.
Devlin's deckhand had made rounds on the boat after the pair took over at noon, but he and the engineer were both in the galley below when the crash occurred.
Neither of them felt anything when they struck the nine-ton duck boat. But the deckhand sensed the tug slow down, and presumed they were nearing the dock. He looked out a porthole and saw people in the water.
Devlin, about that same time, ran below to wake the master.
"Next thing I know I got a knock on my door stating that I ran over - I think I ran over a DUKW boat or, you know, to that effect," Woods, 31, told investigators. "My heart just about stops."
Woods ran to the upper wheelhouse to take over from his mate, steering the barge away from the accident scene.
Fox was counting heads after his duck boat sank and he and his passengers bobbed to the surface.
Church host Jackie Kennedy, 54, is credited with rescuing Mereticzki.
"Timea, the Hungarian teacher, ... said, `I cannot swim. Don't let me die.' And so I began to help her," said Kennedy, whose teenage daughter, Laura, was also in the water.
Coast Guard officers, a nearby ferry and other rescuers rushed to pluck people from the river, while other passengers swam to shore. Twenty-six people suffered minor injuries.
The bodies of the two victims surfaced days later, hers a few miles downriver and his eerily near the spot where the duck boat sank in the 55-foot-deep channel.
"(It's) a miracle that as many people survived as did survive. It was - by what I saw, from when I looked at that picture of the barge bearing down on that boat, I don't know how any of us survived. I don't," Ashery said.
Mongeluzzi, whose wrongful death lawsuit names the tug and duck boat owners and others as defendants, blames the two-man duck boat crew for not getting their passengers out of harm's way during the 10 minutes they were idle.
Fox and his 18-year-old deckhand failed to call the Coast Guard, accept an offer of help from another duck boat, help passengers with life vests or try to restart the engine, he said.
"They went 0 for 4," Mongeluzzi said.
Fox, in turn, has sued K-Sea and the city, saying he may never recover from his physical and emotional injuries.
Ride the Ducks President Chris Herschend pledged this week that the company would learn from the crash, while emphasizing the extent of Devlin's cell phone use in the critical final minutes.
The company suspended its operations in Philadelphia afterward but plans to resume them on the Delaware this spring, after a failed attempt to move them to the less commercial Schuylkill River.
Joseph Dady, a tug captain not involved in the crash who serves on the Coast Guard's Towing Safety Advisory Commission, believes the lack of a lookout on the empty, high-sitting barge was a major factor in the crash, while far from the only one.
"It's a chain of events," said Dady, president of the National Mariners Association. "You have errors from so many places, so many little things ... that come together to create one big tragedy."
duck boat accident, philadelphia, pennsylvania, local/state
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