Pa. duck boat company says it followed NTSB recommendations after 1999 sinking, added buoyancy

By Patrick Walters, AP
Friday, July 9, 2010

Philly duck boat company says it made NTSB fixes

PHILADELPHIA — Tina Rosebrook was sitting at the stern of a stalled amphibious sightseeing boat when the screams began. A barge towering three stories above was speeding toward her.

“It felt like we were all just waiting for the boat to turn or stop,” Rosebrook told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

But the massive barge didn’t turn or stop.

There was a frantic grab for lifejackets stored above passengers’ heads and rushed efforts to get the attention of the crew on the tug boat pushing the barge.

Within seconds the barge slammed into the duck boat, throwing the 37 people aboard into the Delaware River on Wednesday, turning a quirky way to see the sights into a tragedy.

Thursday evening, the Coast Guard suspended its search for the two people who were missing, 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szablcs Prem.

“The Coast Guard searches as long as the possibility of survival is there,” Petty Officer Crystal Kneen said. “We don’t have the thought that they could be alive at this point.”

The Georgia company that owns the duck boats operation said Thursday it had followed safety recommendations following a 1999 sinking, but it suspended its operations nationwide.

The missing from Wednesday’s collision were among 13 Hungarian students, two Hungarian teachers, four U.S. students and three U.S. teachers on a tour hosted by Marshallton United Methodist Church in suburban Philadelphia.

Rosebrook, 30, of Davidson, N.C., said she was briefly under the bow of the barge. She’d had time to get lifejackets on her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece but not herself. When she surfaced, she found one floating on the river — and discovered the girls were safe.

Police rescue boats arrived and helped them out of the water almost as quickly as they’d been submerged.

On Thursday, National Transportation Safety Board Investigators dug into their efforts to reconstruct what went wrong. They expected to spend more than a week working in Philadelphia before heading back to Washington, D.C., and continuing their investigation.

Board member Robert Sumwalt said the agency would look into the condition of the vessels and whether proper protocols were in place and were followed. The NTSB planned to interview those aboard the boats, listen to recordings of radio transmissions and study videos from cameras posted nearby by the City of Philadelphia and at least two television stations.

Sumwalt said the experience and condition of the two-member crew of the duck boat and the five-member crew of the tug would be checked out. He said tests showed none had been drinking. Drug test results were expected in about a week.

The duck boat company, Ride the Ducks, has been in Philadelphia since 2003. Passengers are driven on a tour of the Old City neighborhood near Independence Hall before riding into the Delaware River from a ramp south of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

As of 2000, there were more than 250 refurbished amphibious vehicles in service nationwide among various operators.

In Pennsylvania, agencies ranging from the Coast Guard to Philadelphia’s streets department have a hand in regulating the duck boats, which look like boats with wheels.

The Coast Guard performs annual inspections of the vessels’ seaworthiness, and because they travel city streets they are also registered with the state Department of Transportation.

Inspection records for the sunken duck boat have been turned over to the NTSB.

Thirteen passengers were killed when a duck boat in Hot Springs, Ark., sank in 1999, the most deadly accident since the boats were converted for tourism. Afterward, the NTSB recommended tour operators modify the boats to increase buoyancy so that they won’t sink even if flooded.

The Coast Guard, which regulates most of the boats, responded in December 2001 with new safety guidance to operators but declined to mandate more buoyancy. Many operators complained the modifications were impractical, a notion the NTSB disputed.

Sharla Feldscher, a spokeswoman for Ride the Ducks, which was acquired by the Herschend Family Entertainment company, of Norcross, Ga., in 2004, said the company added buoyancy to its boats.

“If there were requests for modifications from the NTSB, they were done,” she said.

The tour company suspended operations nationwide Thursday, a day after suspending its Philadelphia tours. It also operates tours in San Francisco, Atlanta, Newport, Ky., and Branson, Mo. A Ride the Ducks operation in Seattle is independently owned and remained open for business.

Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale, JoAnn Loviglio, Randy Pennell and Michael Rubinkam in Philadelphia; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; Joan Lowy in Washington; and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary.

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