Recalling Arkansas Duck-boat tragedy from 1999, and the NTSB report

The housewife clicked through the TV channels, but one news report prompted her to stop. It chilled her soul.

Laura Maron - a survivor of the Miss Majestic Duck-boat sinking in Hot Springs, Ark., that killed four of her family members in 1999 - had learned of the Duck-boat tragedy in Philadelphia earlier this month.

"When I saw what had happened, it immediately brought back what happened to us," Maron, 57, told the Daily News. She remembers thinking: "Please let them be all OK. Please let them all get out.

"Let them all have had their life jackets on."

Life jackets are exactly what the National Transportation Safety Board had in mind nine years ago when the agency issued its final report on the sinking of the Miss Majestic. Among its recommendations to the Coast Guard, the NTSB report urged that passengers be required to wear life jackets any time Duck boats enter water and that tour companies eliminate the canopies that shield passengers from the sun and rain.

But groups with vested interests in fun, breezy tours considered those two recommendations troublesome, and the Coast Guard never implemented them.

Two Hungarian tourists, Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, died in an accident on the Delaware July 7, when a tugboat pushed a sludge barge into Duck 34, an amphibious boat operated by the Ride the Ducks tour company. Thirty-three traumatized passengers and two crew members survived.

One marine-safety advocate believes the Coast Guard is partly responsible for the crash.

"They refused to abide by the NTSB and this is what happened. Two people died," said Ronald G. Sinn, a licensed master, or boat captain, from Cape May. "Obviously, they wouldn't have been killed if they had been wearing life jackets and if the boat hadn't had a canopy."

The loss of life was even greater in the Miss Majestic accident, in which 13 people drowned, including three children. One mother was found clutching her 3-year-old son at the bottom of Lake Hamilton still sitting in their seat.

The circumstances surrounding the Delaware River accident were different from the Lake Hamilton calamity, Maron said, but "loss is loss."

Maron's loss was Job-like. She's remarried now, but she was known as Laura Todd back then, when the sinking claimed the lives of her second husband, Richard Todd, 40; daughter Emily, 4; son Thomas, 5; and daughter-in-law Melanie McGuirk, 22.

Maron was living in Louisiana at the time and had traveled with her family to Arkansas to visit her son James McGuirk, now 34, and his wife, who also drowned in the lake.

"It was just a very painful thing to remember," said Maron, who now lives in Wapwallopen, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre. She declined to speak further of that day.

Miss Majestic sank shortly after entering Lake Hamilton - "They sink too fast. There's no time," Maron said - and the NTSB found enough blame to go around.

The safety board blamed the Duck-boat company, the now-defunct Land and Lakes Tours Inc., for failing "to adequately repair and maintain the DUKW [Duck boat]." Water entered the vessel because of a loose drive-shaft seal that wasn't tightened by a mechanic.

And it blamed the Coast Guard for not adhering to regular oversight of the vessel. The NTSB report also said the canopy "contributed to the high loss of life . . . that entrapped passengers within the sinking vehicle."

The Coast Guard, as regulators of navigable waters and passenger vessels, did not concur with the NTSB on the subject of life jackets and issued an internal directive that was less strict than what NTSB recommended. It directed the "master to require passengers to don life jackets when possible hazardous conditions exist," wrote Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul J. Pluta in a response to the NTSB's report.

The directive had many fingerprints on it. It was hammered out by the Coast Guard, a lobbying group known as the Passenger Vessel Association and representatives of other passenger-entertainment vessels, said Peter Lauridsen, a retired Coast Guard captain who is now the regulatory-affairs consultant for the PVA.

Lauridsen said the problem with passengers' wearing life jackets whenever the tour boats enter water is that the jackets would become worn in a short period because of their being used on every trip.

A life jacket "becomes damaged," he said. "It's worn and torn. It becomes inconvenient."

David Deaver, a civilian with the Coast Guard's Office of Investigations and Analysis in Washington, D.C., also said the jacket was no guarantee.

"Life jackets have trapped people," Deaver said. "It adds bulk to the person, and it's hard for them to get out."

Sinn adamantly disagreed with the arguments by the Coast Guard and the PVA.

"If the NTSB feels it's for the safety of the passengers, then [the Coast Guard's and PVA's] reasons are a pretty lame excuse," said Sinn, who was a Coast Guard reservist for six years. "The NTSB said the adults [on Miss Majestic] didn't have time to put the preservers on the children when the boat started to sink. The Duck boats sink real fast."

The Coast Guard and PVA, which has about 600 members, also nixed the "no canopy" notion.

"Most of them [canopies] are there for the protection of the Duck boat," said Lauridsen, who spoke from Virginia Beach, Va. "They protect them [passengers] from rain and sun during the excursions."

The Coast Guard directive suggests that canopy supports are positioned in a way that would allow passengers to exit the vessel without obstruction.

Bob Mongeluzzi, one of the lawyers representing the Hungarian victims' families, is concerned that the NTSB recommendations weren't followed.

"Why are people not told to wear [life jackets] as soon as they go into the water?" Mongeluzzi asked. "And why can't a canopy get taken down like a simple convertible?

"If we could send someone to the moon 41 years ago, how could we not be able to design a canopy that could be simply, inexpensively and easily taken down and retracted?"