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$17 million settlement in Delaware River duck-boat deaths

After nearly two years of litigation, the families of the two Hungarian tourists killed in the July 2010 accident between a barge and a duck boat on the Delaware River will receive $15 million from the companies that owned the vessels.

After nearly two years of litigation, the families of the two Hungarian tourists killed in the July 2010 accident between a barge and a duck boat on the Delaware River will receive $15 million from the companies that owned the vessels.

"For the families, no amount can replace their priceless only children," their lawyer, Robert Mongeluzzi, said moments after announcing the settlement in the federal case.

Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16, who were visiting Philadelphia from Hungary, died in the accident. Their parents attended the first two days of the trial, which started Monday, but began a return journey to Hungary on Wednesday and were not available for comment.

"It was a painful experience for them to be here during this trial to listen to the eyewitnesses describe the horror inside the duck boat that day, yet they asked us at the beginning of this case to tell them what happened. After more than 50 depositions and tens of thousands of pages of transcripts, we've been able to give them some of the answers of why their children died," Mongeluzzi said.

Dora's parents, Aniko Takacs and Peter Schwendtner, were heartened to see video of the accident, made public for the first time during the trial, which seemed to show their daughter throwing a life jacket to someone in the water.

"Dora gave her life to save an American," said Peter Ronai, also a lawyer for the families.

Ride the Ducks, which operates the amphibious touring vehicles, and K-Sea Transportation Partners, which owned the tug that pushed a barge into the duck boat on July 7, 2010, also will pay $2 million to be split among 18 duck-boat passengers who survived the crash.

Chris Herschend, president of Ride the Ducks, said he was sorry for what the Prem and Schwendtner families experienced.

"I personally want them to know that I'd move heaven and earth to undo what happened if I could," Herschend said in a phone interview.

Darrell Wilson, spokesman for K-Sea, which is based in East Brunswick, N.J., said the company would have no comment on the settlement.

The two companies did not disclose how much each side contributed to the $17 million total.

The two sides reached an agreement after U.S. District Judge Thomas O'Neill Jr. asked them to try to negotiate.

In their opening arguments, lawyers for both companies tried to pin blame on Matt Devlin, who was piloting the tug pushing a 250-foot barge on the Delaware near Penn's Landing.

At 12:50 p.m. on the day of the accident, Devlin's wife called him with news that their son Jacob, then 5, had been deprived of oxygen for eight minutes while undergoing corrective eye surgery.

Devlin panicked, researched the problem on a laptop, and made multiple calls on his cellphone to relatives. He also turned down the volume of the tug's marine emergency radio, causing him to miss warnings of the impending crash.

He moved from the upper to the lower wheelhouse, leaving him unable to see what was in front of the barge.

When smoke began pouring from the duck-boat engine, Capt. Gary Fox stopped the vessel and waited to be towed to shore. At 2:37 p.m., the barge hit the duck boat, sending 35 passengers and two crew members overboard and killing Schwendtner and Prem.

Devlin is serving a one-year prison sentence for the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter in the case. His son recovered from the oxygen deprivation.

Mongeluzzi, however, argued that Devlin alone was not responsible.

He said K-Sea did little to enforce safety rules and looked the other way despite evidence of rampant cellphone use among employees who were supposed to be keeping watch. He also claimed Ride the Ducks had lax safety practices, not ensuring, for example, that it had a working air horn to warn other boats of a problem on the day of the accident.

In testimony Monday and Tuesday, passengers Alysia Petchulat and Kevin Grace recounted how they frantically tried to pull life jackets over their children's heads as the barge bore down on the duck boat. Petchulat briefly lost sight of her son, Cole, who was then 11 years old, in the dark waters of the Delaware. Mother and son survived.

Grace and his daughter Ruby, then 9, also survived. Petchulat and Grace were claimants in the case and will share in the settlement.

Lawyer Andrew Duffy, who works with Mongeluzzi, said he believed the survivors' stories helped sway the case.

"Petchulat tries to hold on to Cole. She doesn't hold on. She loses him. She surfaces first and doesn't see her son," Duffy said, "The fact that two lives were lost is absolutely inexcusable and inexplicable on what is supposed to be a pleasure tour, but the survivors also went through an ordeal that nobody can imagine."

Duffy said a judge would determine how much the lawyers in the case would be paid.

Since the accident, Ride the Ducks has shortened its route on the Delaware so the boats do not get as close to large vessels. The company also keeps a rescue boat nearby. It was called into action Sunday, on the eve of the trial, to tow a stalled duck boat to shore.

The trial had been expected to last a month, but after hearing opening statements and testimony from several witnesses, O'Neill asked the parties Tuesday to try to settle.

Such a request is not unusual in cases like this, where there is no jury to be kept waiting while the lawyers try to reach an accord, Mongeluzzi said.

U.S. District Judge John Padova oversaw the negotiations.

"I felt that the best way to interact with [Judge Padova] was just to be upright and forthright and go straight to what our bottom line was. I told him we weren't going to be able to settle for less than $15 million," Mongeluzzi said.

He based the amount on payments in other cases.

"It's a really hard thing to try to value the death of a child," he said. "You can't."

Inquirer staff writer Troy Graham contributed to this article.