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On Duck 34, frantic efforts to send alarm failed

In the frantic minutes before Duck 34 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 airhorn only to have it fail, according to an account provided Friday night by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The bodies of Hungarian tourists Dora Schwendtner, 16, top left, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, were recovered Friday in the Delaware River near the Walt Whitman Bridge, two days after a Ride the Ducks boat was struck by a barge. The vessel was also lifted from the river. (Right photo: Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
The bodies of Hungarian tourists Dora Schwendtner, 16, top left, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, were recovered Friday in the Delaware River near the Walt Whitman Bridge, two days after a Ride the Ducks boat was struck by a barge. The vessel was also lifted from the river. (Right photo: Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)Read more

In the frantic minutes before Duck 34 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 airhorn 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 the 33 surviving passengers, provides the first official account of the minutes leading up to Wednesday's fatal accident on the Delaware River. The bodies of two Hungarian students visiting with a group were recovered from the river Friday.

Still to be determined is why the pleas went unheard, at least by the tugboat. Officials said Friday night that its 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 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 he or she was told to jump into the water, as some survivors said in their initial accounts to reporters.

The NTSB said Gary Fox, the "master" - or captain - of the duck, told NTSB investigators that he conducted a 20-minute inspection of the vehicle when he started work Wednesday.

"He said the vessel was in top-notch condition with no irregularities," said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt. Fox, 58, was interviewed for three hours and 45 minutes.

Fox said that he worked on Sunday, had Monday off, then worked Tuesday and Wednesday. The accident occurred during his third tour on Wednesday.

On that tour, Fox picked up deckhand Kyle Burkhardt, 18, at the duck ramp at the end of Race Street. They entered the water and noted no traffic of concern, Sumwalt said.

Fox then turned the helm of the duck over to Burkhardt, who is in his second year with Ride the Ducks, while maintaining supervision. Sumwalt said the NTSB would find out if that was standard procedure.

While heading south on the Delaware, Fox noticed a white smoke with an acrid smell, but saw no flames. Burkhardt, who was interviewed for two hours and 15 minutes, said it smelled like burning rubber. He said the smoke dissipated quickly after it appeared.

Fox, who is in his third year with the company, said he decided to shut down the engine and assess its temperature. He went out on the bow and noticed that the engine compartment was warm but not hot. He then turned off a battery powering the engine.

Fox used his radio to broadcast on Channel 13, which is used to communicate ship to ship on the river, and notified nearby vessels that he had stopped. (Channel 16 is the standard emergency frequency monitored by the Coast Guard.) He called the ducks' dispatcher to ask for another duck to come and pick up his passengers.

A duck that had the next scheduled tour behind Fox's appeared within "yelling distance," and asked if he required assistance. The other duck was full. Fox told the other master that he did not need assistance from him.

Fox and Burkhardt said they noticed the approaching barge when it was about 400 yards away. Sumwalt did not have a time estimate from that sighting to the collision, but he said the barge possibly was moving at 5 m.p.h.

Fox said he turned the battery back on and used his radio to try to contact the tugboat crew. He did not say if the tugboat crew responded, Sumwalt said.

Fox said the airhorn that failed had been working when he did his morning inspection.

Sumwalt said 16 passengers were interviewed: 11 Hungarian students, two Hungarian teachers, and three American students.

Some of the passengers said they saw white or gray smoke, and saw Fox talking on the radio, Sumwalt said.

"They told amazing stories of heroism," Sumwalt said.

"One young man said he gave his life jacket to someone else and then swam to shore," he said.

No passenger reported hearing either Fox or Burkhardt telling them to jump overboard.

The news conference by the NTSB, now the lead agency investigating the crash, came hours after a salvage operation retrieved the amphibious duck from the bottom of the Delaware and the bodies of the missing two 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 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 80 at the foot of Snyder Avenue, 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 Dutch agency.

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.

A private memorial for survivors, host families, friends, and others directly involved with the rescue effort will be at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Independence Seaport Museum, 211 S. Columbus Blvd.

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.

"I've been out here two hours," said Basil Jones, 28, a car mechanic from West Philadelphia. "The police didn't see it come out. We all saw it."

The duck appeared remarkably intact when it was raised at 1:28 p.m. and loaded on a barge at 2:50 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," Sumwalt 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 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 midafternoon, 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."

A subdued Mayor Nutter announced the memorial at a news conference Friday night at Penn's Landing.

He said a "public component" would follow the service, with a laying of wreaths and the release of doves.

"We'll do all we can do to work with those families," said Nutter, who spoke to the passengers on Thursday.

"It is very painful to have something like this happen," Nutter said. Of the 35 who survived, "it is quite frankly a bit of a miracle," he said.

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