NTSB: Tug pilot in duck boat crash was on cell

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A mate piloting a tug boat involved in a deadly collision of a tourist boat and a barge last summer was consumed by a family emergency and on his cellphone at the time, a new government report on the crash revealed Monday.

The 34-year-old mate told a tugboat company manager he had learned that his young son had suffered a life-threatening emergency that day during a medical procedure, the National Transportation Safety Board report said. The mate, identified as Matt Devlin, made or received 21 calls on his personal cellphone from the time he took the wheel at noon until the 2:37 p.m. crash.

The barge struck a disabled amphibious vessel called a duck boat on July 7, killing two Hungarian students and plunging 35 other people into the Delaware River. The NTSB report does not analyze what caused the crash.

“The families in Hungary cannot understand how a tug boat operator can be using a cellphone when his boat is about to destroy a tourist boat,” said lawyers Peter Ronai and Holly Ostrov Ronai, who represent the families of the students killed.

The 4,400-page report released Monday also said the K-Sea Transportation mate did not assign a lookout on the high-sitting barge as it was being pushed from behind by the small tug. And it questioned whether he stayed in the top wheelhouse, as advised by the crew leader so he could see over the empty barge to the river beyond.

A federal criminal investigation is also under way. On his lawyer’s advice, Devlin has not cooperated with NTSB investigators, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

A home address and phone number for Devlin could not immediately be determined Monday. Defense lawyer Frank DeSimone said Monday that he hadn’t read the latest NTSB report and declined to comment.

The parents of the Hungarian students killed, 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner, have a wrongful-death lawsuit pending against the city of Philadelphia, which owned the sludge barge, and operators of the tug and the duck boat, a type of boat with wheels.

After the crash, Devlin went to the stateroom of the master, the leader of the five-person crew.

The master recalled “that the mate appeared to have an expression of ‘disbelief, like is this really happening,’ but seemed alert,” the report said.

The tour boat’s radio calls to the approaching tug went unheeded in the moments before the collision, the NTSB found. Devlin, in brief statements the day of the crash, told investigators he did not hear, see or feel anything before seeing people in the water, the agency said. Nor did his deckhand or engineer. The other two crew members, including the master, were off duty.

Drug and alcohol tests on the crews of both vessels were negative, the NTSB has said.

On Monday, East Brunswick, N.J.-based K-Sea banned the personal use of cellphones while on duty.

“K-Sea continues to assist the NTSB, United States Coast Guard and other parties with the investigation, with the goal of preventing future tragedies and ensuring the safety of our waterways for all who use them,” the company said in a statement.

Devlin’s calls all appear to have involved family members, including the six-minute call to his mother’s home that was under way when the vessels collided, the report says.

The tour boat company, Ride the Ducks, also bans personal cellphone use by crew members, unless a manager approves of it. The company has not resumed its popular land-and-water tours in Philadelphia but hopes to do so this spring after adding an emergency boat at a nearby pier and other safety measures.

“If you can’t learn from a tragedy like this, you’re not paying attention,” Chris Herschend, president of Ride the Ducks, told The Associated Press.

However, he said he’s seen no evidence his company contributed to the crash.

The report, which includes witness interviews and photographs of the 250-foot barge striking the 33-foot duck boat, said the duck boat captain did not contact the Coast Guard after shutting down the engine and dropping anchor in the busy shipping channel when the engine apparently started smoking. The report also noted that the captain, Gary Fox, did not try to restart the engine as the barge bore down on him.

According to Herschend, the 58-year-old Fox instead radioed the tug and other nearby vessels to say it was stranded.

The NTSB report says Fox at first thought the barge was turning in response to his call. It says minutes later he saw that wasn’t the case and instructed the 35 passengers aboard to don life vests and jump overboard, but only his 18-year-old deckhand at the bow was able to jump before impact.

The passengers — including a group of 22 Hungarian students, teachers and host families from suburban Philadelphia — were under the steel-and-canvas canopy when the boat began sinking in the 55-foot deep channel.

Lawyer Bob Mongeluzzi, who filed the wrongful-death lawsuit, said he believes such canopies trap passengers and should be removed when the amphibious boats hit the water. However, Herschend argues that they may help absorb the impact of a crash. The company, which has operations in San Francisco and several other cities, has no plans to remove them, he said.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter this year nixed the Norcross, Ga.-based company’s plans to move to the less commercial Schuylkill River, citing road traffic and other concerns.

Twenty-six people aboard the duck boat, including Fox, suffered minor injuries in the crash, the NTSB said. Fox, of Turnersville, N.J., said in a civil suit against K-Sea and others that he may never recover from his injuries, including fears he would die.

The NTSB will later issue a final report including its analysis of the crash.

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