By Nathan Gorenstein, The Philadelphia Inquirer
The two Hungarian students killed in the duck accident on the Delaware River last month were almost certainly caught underwater by the boat’s cloth canopy, a lawyer said yesterday as a lawsuit was filed against tour operator Ride the Ducks and tugboat operator K-Sea Transportation Partners.
“I can’t imagine the horror of those children being trapped . . . in a jet-black river, away from their parents, away from their country, struggling for their lives,” said Philadelphia litigator Robert J. Mongeluzzi.
One of the victims, Szabolcs Prem, 20, was a competitive swimmer. Mongeluzzi said his body rose to the surface July 9 as salvage operations started on the vessel, Duck 34. The boat sank off Penn’s Landing two days earlier after being struck by a barge pushed by the tug Caribbean Sea.
“That is very strong evidence he was still inside the boat” when he drowned, Mongeluzzi said. “We can think of no other reason why they would be unable to escape.”
The lawsuit on behalf of the families of Prem and Dora Schwendtner, 16, is the first detailed complaint stemming from the July 7 collision, which sent 37 people into the river. All the others were rescued. Lawyer James E. Beasley Jr. is preparing a complaint in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court on behalf of eight of the survivors.
The Prem and Schwendtner lawsuit also asserts that K-Sea did not have a written policy banning the person at the helm from making personal cell-phone calls.
Mongeluzzi said his law firm had received an anonymous tip that the tug’s helmsman had turned down the volume of the vessel’s marine radio so he could take a personal cell-phone call, making him unable to hear radio calls from the disabled duck.
“It has not been confirmed, but it is one of the issues that the parents want us to find out,” he said.
The duck’s engine stalled with 37 tourists and crew aboard. It was anchored in the shipping channel awaiting help when the barge smashed into the vessel, forcing it under the water.
The tug’s first mate was at the helm, and he has refused to be interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board.
K-Sea is not discussing the accident while the NTSB investigation is under way, said company spokesman Darrell Wilson.
That report may not be completed for up to a year. Mongeluzzi’s cocounsel, Holly Ostrov Ronai, said the parents of the two Hungarians were anxious for the lawsuit to proceed so lawyers could subpoena documents and witnesses.
“These are people who live very simple lives. These children were everything to them, their whole world,” said Ronai. “They literally lived in three-room houses. . . . The only thing that matters to them is how this happened, why this happened, and make sure it never happens again.”
The lawsuit claiming negligence and wrongful death is more bad publicity for Ride the Ducks, whose 15 vessels have been pulled off city streets and the river. The firm, owned by a company in Norcross, Ga., wants to resume operations but has not yet requested approval from the Coast Guard.
Mongeluzzi’s lawsuit cites an NTSB report on a 1999 duck accident — involving a different firm — that said canopies on the amphibious vessels were a safety threat.
He also called on regulators to mandate an NTSB recommendation that additional flotation be installed so the vessels would not sink, even if filled with water.
Very few, if any, commercial passenger vessels are built with what is called “reserve buoyancy,” but Mongeluzzi said ducks required it because the amphibious ability that makes them such a tourist attraction also makes them less seaworthy.
He portrayed the court action as not about getting monetary damages for the families, but forcing changes to the entire duck-boat business.
“This is a national problem. This is a tremendous safety issue,” he said. About 30 cities have duck-boat operations.
Ride the Ducks spokesman Bob Salmon said it is not the NTSB that regulates the vessels, but the Coast Guard.
“And we meet and exceed their rules and regulations for amphibious vehicles,” he said in a statement.
Salmon said the NTSB has said that Duck 34, the vessel involved, was on its normal route about 150 feet from the Philadelphia shoreline. “This distance is well within the 300 feet required by the USCG,” Salmon said.
The Delaware’s shipping channel runs parallel to Penn’s Landing, little more than a stone’s throw offshore. When Duck 34 lost power and anchored while awaiting help, it was within the shipping channel.
Also named in the lawsuit are the owner of Ride the Ducks, Herschend Family Entertainment of Norcross, Ga., and the City of Philadelphia, which owned the barge. Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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