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Duck boat's crew tried to send signal, sound air horn before crash, officials say


By James Osborne, Nathan Gorenstein and Allison Steele

The Philadelphia Inquirer


PHILADELPHIA — In the frantic minutes before the Duck 34 sightseeing boat capsized, its crew tried in vain to send a distress signal to the tugboat driving a barge in their direction, and then desperately tried to sound an air horn only to have it fail, according to an account provided Friday night by the National Transportation Safety Board.


The rough chronology, based on interviews with the two crew members and 16 of 33 surviving passengers, provides the first official account of the minutes leading up to Wednesday's fatal accident on the Delaware River.

Still to be determined is why the pleas went unheard, at least by the tugboat. Officials said Friday night that the crew would be interviewed Saturday. The crew of the Ride the Ducks vehicle, according to the NTSB account, turned off the engine after seeing and smelling smoke.

That decision looms as important because the 30-foot duck boat in effect stopped in the shipping channel, in the direct path of the 250-foot city-owned barge. In interviews conducted by the NTSB, the crew reported seeing the barge when it was about 400 yards away.

The two crew members told investigators that they instructed passengers to don life vests, according to the NTSB. None of the 16 passengers interviewed said they were told to jump into the water, as some survivors said in their initial accounts to reporters.

The news conference by the NTSB, now the lead agency investigating the crash, came hours after a salvage operation retrieved the amphibious duck boat from the bottom of the Delaware and the bodies of two missing Hungarian tourists were found.

The six-hour salvage effort went smoothly, though shortly after 10 a.m. a body appeared on the surface, near where the duck boat sank Wednesday.

The remains were identified as those of 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem, one of the two who died in the accident, said the Philadelphia Office of the Medical Examiner.

"He had a black shirt. I saw the back of his head. Then, some guy with binoculars said 'Yeah, that's the body,' " said Ronald Lange, 64, who saw the body come to the surface.


The body of the second victim, Dora Schwendtner, 16, was found earlier Friday off Pier 8, about two miles downriver from the crash site, officials said.

The two Hungarians were with a group of students visiting the United States in a program organized by a Methodist church in West Chester.

Both were thrown into the water when the amphibious vehicle was struck by a barge being pushed upriver by the tug Caribbean Sea. The other passengers and the crew members were rescued.

After Prem's body was spotted, it drifted with the incoming tide and was caught under the barge carrying the crane used to lift the vehicle, designated by the operator as Duck 34.

Police tried unsuccessfully to retrieve the remains while salvage efforts were under way.

When the barge was pulled away shortly after 3 p.m., the body floated free. A large crowd of spectators watching from Penn's Landing shouted and pointed as the body was carried downstream. Police in nearby motorboats quickly sped to the location.

The duck boat appeared remarkably intact when it was raised shortly after 2:30 p.m. The only apparent damage was to the canvas-and-metal canopy. The canvas was torn, and the frame was bent.

"This is a key piece of evidence and we want to take a look at it," Robert Sumwalt, a board member with the NTSB, said after the salvaged boat was placed on a barge for transportation to the Coast Guard station in South Philadelphia.


The salvage operation began around 8:45 a.m. Friday and was led by Weeks Marine, a national construction and dredging company that pulled up the wreckage of the US Airways plane that crashed into the Hudson River in New York City in January 2009.

A 10-man crew used the crane on the barge to raise the 18,000-pound amphibious vehicle.

In an interview Friday evening, Jason Marchioni, head of East Coast salvage for Weeks Marine, said the operation was slowed while waiting for a slack tide, during which water is flowing neither in nor out.

Hector Aguilar, a commercial diver hired by Weeks, descended 55 feet to the river bottom, where he found the duck boat sitting upright.

"The visibility was very short, probably two to three feet," he said. "I could only see bits and pieces of the boat. I couldn't see the whole thing until later."

The operation ultimately stretched into mid-afternoon, with a crowd of spectators that at times swelled to more than 100. Three day-care workers said they attempted to leave stuffed animals and a sign as a memorial on Penn's Landing, but were turned away by police until the salvage operation was finished.

"We've been on the boat before. We wanted to do something," said Jasmine Harris, 19, who works for Old City Childcare.

While most in the crowd were transfixed, James Carry, 63, of North Philadelphia, sat in the shade playing an African hand drum.


"I'm playing for their souls that perished in this water," he said. "I couldn't imagine what it is like to drown like that."


(Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Nicole Lockley, Vanessa Martinez, Sam Wood, Robert Moran, and Jeff Shields.)


(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.



PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BOAT-ACCIDENT

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