Salvage crane in place at site where Pa. duck boat sank after barge crash; female body found

By Maryclaire Dale, AP
Friday, July 9, 2010

Salvage crane in place where Pa. duck boat sank

PHILADELPHIA — A salvage crane is in position to begin hoisting a sunken tour boat from the waters of the Delaware River where it collided with a barge, leaving two people missing.

The 25-ton crane got into position at around 9 a.m. Friday near Penn’s Landing, off the Pennsylvania side of the river. Officials for the company that owns the boat say it will take six to eight hours to recover the sunken vessel.

The duck boat carrying 37 people was struck by a 250-foot barge and sunk Wednesday. Two Hungarian passengers are missing, 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs (SAH’-bolch) Prem.

Coast Guard officials say a body was pulled from the water down river from the collision site earlier Friday. The body has not been identified, but police say it is female.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The body of a young female was recovered early Friday from the Delaware River near where a 250-foot barge collided with a stalled amphibious sightseeing boat, throwing 37 people into the water.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Crystal Kneen said authorities could not immediately say whether the recovered body was that of 16-year-old Dora Schwentner, one of two Hungarian tourists missing since Wednesday’s collision. A 20-year-old man, Szabolcs Prem, is also missing.

The body was recovered around 4:45 a.m. near the Walt Whitman Bridge by members of the Philadelphia Fire Department, Kneen said. The bridge is down the river from the site of the collision.

Police said the body was that of young female and was first spotted by a fishing boat. Officer Christine O’Brien said police did not have any further information about the age of the body.

The Coast Guard had said Thursday evening they did not believe either of the missing passengers had survived.

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 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.

Istvan Nagy, a deputy mayor in Hungary, told state news agency MTI that authorities were helping the families of those involved in the accident, including the quick processing of passport requests so parents could travel as soon as possible to see their children.

Salvage efforts to retrieve the submerged boat were scheduled to begin Friday morning. Authorities say the sunken vessel is in about 50 feet of water.

Tina Rosebrook, 30, of Davidson, N.C., told The Associated Press that 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.

will not be displayed