Duck boat victims' lawyer wants the vessels grounded

Lawyers for two Hungarian tourists killed in the Delaware River duck-boat accident launched a public relations effort Friday aimed at getting the city and Coast Guard to prevent the ducks from returning to the water.

The duck company, meanwhile, said it wanted to resume operations this season and was working with the Coast Guard and the city to come up with an acceptable plan.

The 15 amphibious vehicles licensed for operations on the river by Ride the Ducks are undergoing on-the-water testing and mechanical inspections.

"We're anxious to resume," said Bob Salmon, a spokesman for the Georgia-based company, "but we are still working with the Coast Guard and trying to work through what we need to do to get them back in operation."

Attorneys for the families of the victims, tourists Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem, say a federal analysis of a 1999 accident in Arkansas shows that the ducks' design, combined with canvas canopies, makes them unsafe for use as tourist craft.

The Coast Guard did not respond to that claim, but said in a statement that the agency "will continue to work closely with Ride the Ducks and the City of Philadelphia to ensure that all safety issues related to the operation of these vessels are addressed."

The tourists died July 7 when Duck 34, carrying 35 passengers and two crew, was struck by a 250-foot-long barge being pushed by the tug Caribbean Sea. The tug's mate has taken the Fifth Amendment and declined to be interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board. Regulations require commercial craft to keep a proper lookout.

The duck was anchored on the edge of the shipping lane after its motor failed during the water portion of the tour. Salmon said the duck's captain broadcast a warning on the marine radio channel used for communications between vessels.

He added that the "rules of the road" that govern vessels also make it the "obligation of a vessel under way to avoid a disabled vessel."

The NTSB report cited by the attorneys recommended that the Coast Guard require the amphibious vehicles to install "reserve buoyancy," which could keep even a vessel swamped with water afloat.

In the 1999 Lake Hamilton, Ark., accident that left 13 dead, the NTSB found that as the duck sank, "the natural buoyancy of passengers' bodies forced them into the overhead canopy, which acted like a net to entrap them and prevent their vertical escape." The vehicle was not operated by Ride the Ducks.

"I'm asking the city and the Coast Guard to look at the NTSB report," said Robert J. Mongeluzzi of Philadelphia, one of the lawyers representing the victims. "I would bet that there is nobody in the city who even knew about the report."

Salmon said the canopies on Ride the Ducks craft are designed to allow easy egress in the case of an accident. A Coast Guard regulation requires at least a 32-inch opening between the side of a boat and the bottom of the canopy; Salmon said the Philadelphia ducks have 42 inches.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.