Duck boat collision under federal scrutiny

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The National Transportation Safety Board continued to investigate the July 7 deaths of two Hungarian tourists in a collision between a duck boat and a tug-and-barge on the Delaware River near downtown Philadelphia.

Two Hungarian tourists died when the duck boat was hit by a barge on the Delaware River.

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The Resource, a 250-foot sludge barge, was empty and northbound at 5 knots with the tug Caribbean Sea pushing from alongside when it ran over the stern of DUKW 34 at 2:36 p.m., according to a preliminary report by the NTSB. The amphibious excursion boat, anchored in the Delaware River shipping channel about 150 feet from shore, had stopped with mechanical problems 5 to 10 minutes before the accident, the NTSB says. The duck and its two crewmembers were taking a group of 35 on a land-sea tour when the barge hit.

The duck capsized on impact and sank in 55 feet of water, spilling passengers and crew overboard in sight of the Penn's Landing riverfront below the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, according to the NTSB. Good Samaritans and rescue agencies quickly plucked victims from the water, according to press reports.

In questioning July 9, the master and deckhand on the duck boat told investigators they tried to call the Caribbean Sea over VHF radio but received no response, the NTSB says. Investigators interviewed operators of several vessels in the vicinity at the time of the accident and they say they heard DUKW 34's calls on channel 13, according to the NTSB. NTSB says the crew of the Caribbean Sea consisted of a master, a mate, an engineer and two deckhands.

On July 10, the NTSB interviewed the master, engineer and a deckhand; it didn't interview the mate, who may have been at the helm, and a deckhand who was asleep at the time of the accident. When the NTSB asked to interview the mate, he exercised his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and refused to meet with investigators, the agency says. Press reports say the mate, who remained unidentified, had been relieved of his duties and through his employer had retained independent counsel. The mate was believed to have been piloting the tug at the time of the accident, but the NTSB had not confirmed that. K-Sea Transportation Partners, of East Brunswick, N.J., operates the tug; the city of Philadelphia owns the barge.

The Coast Guard identified the dead as Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szablcs Prem, 20, members of a visiting Hungarian church group. Their bodies were recovered. A salvage barge also raised the duck boat to aid in the investigation.

Herschend Family Entertainment, of Norcross, Ga., which owns Ride the Ducks in Philadelphia and other duck tour boats around the country, closed all its family-owned operations after the accident so it could check over its boats. By mid-July it had reopened in Branson, Mo., San Francisco and Stone Mountain Park, Ga. It says it also planned to reopen in Newport, Ky. The Philadelphia operation remained closed.

Schwendtner and Prem were among 15 youth and youth leaders from Hungary who had joined seven youth and leaders from the Marshallton United Methodist Church in suburban Philadelphia on a boat tour hosted by the church, according to the church's website.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.