Cell Phone Use Cited in Fatal Duck Boat Accident

A crackdown on cell phone use and more rigorous safety training for transportation workers who work on vessels and on land are looming in the aftermath of the National Transportation Safety Board’s recent report on last year’s deadly duck boat accident.

The board concluded the mate on watch on the tug involved in the July 2010 accident on the Delaware River in Philadelphia was in the lower wheelhouse dealing with a family emergency on his cell phone and on a laptop and not maintaining a proper lookout. 

 Two people were killed when a Ride The Ducks tour boat, the DUKW 34, was struck by the bow of the city of Philadelphia’s 250′ sludge barge The Resource being towed by a 2,400-hp tug owned and operated by K-Sea Transportation Partners. The duck boat anchored in the navigation channel after the captain saw smoke coming from an air vent. The NTSB concluded that the smoke might have been steam escaping because of a missing surge tank pressure cap, which Ride The Ducks workers overlooked in a maintenance check. 

Distress calls from the duck boat and others went unanswered by the tug Caribbean Sea, the NTSB said. In addition, the deckhand on the duck boat also was using his cell phone while on duty, and the tour boat’s master did not “appropriately respond to the risk of a collision” once he had shut down the engine and anchored, the NTSB said.

  Electronic device distractions “are becoming the new DUI,” said board member Robert Sumwalt, who was on the scene and the spokesman for the investigation. “It’s going to reach epidemic proportions.”

The board recommended the companies find a better way to ensure employees follow safety and emergency procedures. They told the U.S. Coast Guard to develop regulations on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices by on-duty crew. And they suggested the American Waterways Operators tell members what caused the accident and make sure rules are followed.

Both companies “appear to be running a good operation,” Sumwalt said at an NTSB hearing in late June. So, “why is it at the end of the day, when the chips are down, people don’t follow procedures?”

The AWO “will certainly follow the recommendation to encourage its members to ensure that company safety policies are clearly understood and rigorously followed by their employees in order to avoid terrible events like this,” said spokesperson Anne Davis Burns.

K-Sea said it was reviewing the board’s report and may submit a response for the official record. The East Brunswick, N.J., company also said it is “committed to continually improving the safety of our operations,” but could not comment further because of pending litigation.

“Working with the Coast Guard, we will maintain and continue to improve our safety culture,” said Chris Herschend, president of Ride The Ducks, headquartered in Norcross, Ga.

 The Coast Guard issued a cell phone advisory last October after prodding by the NTSB, which has no enforcement authority. “We do take any safety recommendations seriously,” said spokesman Mike O’Berry. Once the final NTSB report is out, they’ll decide if further action is needed. (The final report was due on the NTSB website this summer.)

The Coast Guard in Philadelphia is nearing completion of its investigation, said Lt. Cmdr. Jon Maiorine, chief of the inspection division. The agency can recommend to an administrative law judge that a mariner’s license be revoked or suspended.

During the hearing, board member Earl Weener asked why the Coast Guard inspected the tour boat and not the tug. An NTSB staff member explained that no regulations apply to smaller towing vessels, but the Coast Guard was working on them. The long-awaited towing vessel inspection rule was expected to be released by early August. — D.K. DuPont 


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