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US: Tug pilot in tour boat crash was on cell

US: Tug pilot in tour boat crash was on cell

The mate piloting a tug boat in last summer's deadly collision of a tourist boat and a barge was consumed by a family emergency and on his mobile phone 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 day of a life-threatening medical emergency involving his young son, the National Transportation Safety Board report said. The mate, who was not identified, made or received 21 calls on his personal mobile phone from the time he took the wheel at noon until the 2:37 p.m. crash.
The barge struck a disabled amphibious "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 cell phone 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. At his lawyer's advice, the mate has declined to cooperate with NTSB investigators, citing his constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.
His defense lawyer, Frank DeSimone, said Monday that he had not yet read the new 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, which owned the barge, and operators of both the tug and the amphibious duck boat.
The tour boat's radio calls to the approaching tug went unheeded in the moments before the collision, the NTSB found. The mate, 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 NTSB said.
Drug and alcohol tests on the crews of both vessels were negative, the NTSB has said.
On Monday, East Brunswick, New Jersey-based K-Sea banned the personal use of cell phones while on duty. The mate's calls all appear to have involved family members, including the six-minute call to his mother's home that was underway when the vessels collided.
"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.
Ride the Ducks, the tour boat company, also bans personal cell phone use by crew, 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 new safety measures.
"If you can't learn from a tragedy like this, you're not paying attention," Chris Herschend, president of Norcross, Georgia-based 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 (76-meter) barge striking the 33-foot (10-meter) 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 several times, and other nearby vessels, to say it was stranded. Fox at first thought the barge was turning in response to his call. Minutes later, he saw that wasn't the case. He 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-feet (17-meter) deep channel.
Twenty-six people aboard the duck boat, including Fox, suffered minor injuries in the crash, the NTSB said. Fox, of Turnersville, New Jersey, 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.


Updated : 2021-10-28 08:51 GMT+08:00