No decision of whether duck tours will resume in Philadelphia

The Coast Guard's acting port captain for Philadelphia said Wednesday that "all options are on the table" as to whether he would allow duck tours to resume operations off Penn's Landing.

On July 7 a 250-foot barge struck a small amphibious vessel stalled in the shipping channel near Penn's Landing with 35 passengers on board, killing two young Hungarian tourists.

The accident has raised questions of whether small passenger boats can operate safely in the Delaware River, whose busy shipping channel is just 400 feet wide. The ducks travel in and adjacent to the channel.

"We're not even close to looking at a decision" of whether to ban the ducks or let them return to the river, Capt. Todd Gatlin said in an interview.

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He said his agency would likely meet with city officials and the duck operators after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completed its on-site investigation.

Last week, Gregory Adams, the Coast Guard's port captain here from 1998 to 2002, told The Inquirer that he had barred ducks from operating off Penn's Landing because of his concern for their safety in the narrow, busy channel.

A spokesman for the NTSB did not return a query Wednesday as to when the local investigation might be completed. The board originally estimated it would conclude at the end of this week.

As part of their investigation, members of the NTSB team rode one of the firm's ducks around the city Wednesday, according to Bob Salmon, spokesman for the operator, Ride the Ducks.

After the fatal accident, the Georgia-based firm voluntarily suspended tours in the five cities where it operates. It has resumed operations in the other cities but not here, Salmon said, "out of respect for the families [of the victims] and for the NTSB investigation."

Salmon said Wednesday that Ride the Ducks believed its 15 ducks could operate safely in the Delaware. "We don't have a timeline," he said, "but we'd clearly like to get back."

Adams' successor, Capt. Jonathan Sarubbi, reversed Adams' ban in 2003, and ducks have operated from spring to fall every year since. Sarubbi did not return an e-mail request to discuss the Coast Guard's decision.

Gatlin said Wednesday that he was not familiar with the factors that led to Sarubbi's decision to reverse the ban.

But he said he did not believe the Delaware was inherently hazardous for recreational and small passenger craft. "Our channel here is big enough" to share, Gatlin said.

He compared it to a highway like I-95.

"There you have big rigs, small cars, motorcycles - even bikes off to the side," he said. "It's the same with a waterway. . . . There's room for everybody" if they observe the rules.

Douglas Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said Wednesday that several city agencies would be involved in any decision to allow ducks to return to city streets.

The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections issues the operating permit, but Oliver said the Managing Director's Office and the deputy mayor for public safety, Everett Gillison, would also weigh in. Any decision they make "will have the implied endorsement of the mayor," according to Oliver.

On Wednesday the owner of the tug that pushed the barge reported that the officer piloting the tug had been relieved of duty.

Relieving the crew member directly involved in an accident is standard practice during a probe, said K-Sea Transportation's spokesman, Darrell Wilson.

"It's no different than when a police officer is involved in a shooting and he's relieved of duty as the investigation takes place," Wilson said.

Citing the Fifth Amendment, the unidentified first mate has refused to cooperate with the investigation, the NTSB reported this week.

An official of the tug operators union familiar with the accident said the first mate, who is second in command after the captain, did not station a lookout on the city-owned barge.

The NTSB is investigating whether the duck captain, Gary Fox, issued timely warnings by radio to other vessels on the river that his craft was immobilized in the channel.

Tug operators have complained that some barges are difficult to see over when they are empty and high in the water.

Wilson said K-Sea had assisted the first mate in finding an attorney.

 


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Sam Wood contributed to this article.