Duck boat accident may lead to new regulations

July’s fatal duck boat accident near Philadelphia has left a number of unanswered questions about the cause. And the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) involvement in the investigation raises the possibility of new regulations.

Ride The Ducks , based in Norcross, Ga., is the owner of the amphibious vehicle. The company is working to resume operations of its 15-boat Philadelphia fleet, said Bob Salmon, vice president of marketing. No timetable has been set.

The company suspended tours in its other cities for several days after the July 7 accident to reinspect vessels and review safety procedures, Salmon said. The company also operates duck tours in San Francisco, Branson, Mo., Stone Mountain, Ga., and Newport, Ky., and is the nation’s largest amphibious tour operator with a total of 90 vehicles that carry over 1.2 million passengers a year, according to its website.

Because of a mechanical problem, the Philadelphia duck boat was anchored in the Delaware River navigation channel when its stern was struck by the bow of the city’s 250′ sludge barge The Resource , which was being towed by K-Sea Transportation Partners ‘ 75-foot tug Caribbean Sea , according to an NTSB report. Two of the duck’s 35 passengers died and 10 were injured as the tour boat sank in 55 feet of water. The cause of the mechanical problem has not been disclosed.

The duck boat’s two crewmembers told the NTSB that the tug did not respond to its radio calls. Operators of other vessels in the area recalled hearing the tour boat’s calls. Investigators also talked to three of the tug’s five crewmembers. One of two deckhands was asleep at the time of the accident, and a mate declined to be interviewed, NTSB said.

“The mate was relieved of his duties onboard the tug,” said K-Sea spokesman Darrell Wilson.

NTSB is trying to verify radio traffic as well as determine whether the barge had a Coast Guard-required lookout at the time of the accident. (Inland Navigation Rules state, “every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout.”)

Wilson would not comment on the lookout or the distress calls. “Out of respect for this investigation process, I don’t want to discuss a lot of the details right now,” he said.

K-Sea “voluntarily suspended” its contract with the city of Philadelphia until the NTSB investigation is completed, said Doug Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter. The $112,000 per month contract ran from July 2009 until June 2011. McAllister Towing and Transportation Co. Inc., which had the contract with the city for 10 years before K-Sea, has been hired on a month-to-month basis for about $138,000 a month.

The new contract requires “an experienced, professional lookout be posted on the barge with radio communication capabilities and a clear line of sight on the waterways,” Oliver said.

That is not an issue for McAllister. “Our company policy is to have a lookout on the barge,” said Capt. Joe Benton, McAllister’s general manager in Philadelphia.

As for the possible impact on the industry, Peter Lauridsen, regulatory affairs consultant for the Passenger Vessel Association , said it’s too early to tell, and that they’ll have a better idea after the NTSB issues its report.

A preliminary report is possible later this year, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway. A final report could take 12 to 18 months.

The NTSB has no enforcement powers but it can be persuasive. After 13 people died in a 1999 duck boat accident on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Ark., NTSB suggested that the Coast Guard require the vessels have enough reserve buoyancy to float even if flooded. If not, the vessels should install new canopies that don’t restrict escape. Also, if canopies have been removed and reserve buoyancy is inadequate, passengers should be required to put on life jackets before leaving the dock.

In response, the Coast Guard said existing rules and a post-accident Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC 1-01) have requirements for dealing with the buoyancy and canopy issues.

Concerning the life jackets, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Pluta wrote that regulations direct the master to require passengers to wear jackets “when possible hazardous conditions exist.” 



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