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On eve of duck boat trial, parents’ grief still acute

In the nearly two years since their children drowned in the Delaware River, the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem have grown close.

In the nearly two years since their children drowned in the Delaware River, the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem have grown close.

They had never met before the summer of 2010, when Dora, 16, and Szabolcs, 20, came to Philadelphia as part of a church-sponsored cross-cultural trip. But on July 7 that year, after a barge overran the Ride the Ducks tour boat, which had been anchored with engine trouble in the middle of a shipping lane, the families were thrown together by tragedy.

"We don't have lives anymore," said Sandor Prem, a 50-year-old mason from a small Hungarian farming community about an hour from the Austrian border. He and his wife, Mari, now spend holidays with Peter and Aniko Schwendtner, Dora's parents, and her stepfather, Gabor Csirke.

"We have no family anymore," Prem said, explaining that both his son and Dora were only children. "So we have become family to one another."

The five adults arrived in Philadelphia over the weekend to prepare for the non-jury civil trial that is scheduled to begin Monday. It is their second trip to the city. On their last visit, a month after the accident, they held a small ceremony near the site where their children's bodies were discovered.

During an interview Sunday in the lobby of the Center City hotel where they are staying, the families spoke through one of their lawyers, Peter Ronai, who translated from Hungarian.

As time goes on, they said, they feel as if they are trapped in a horrible limbo.

"Unlike the survivors, we don't know what happened to our children," said Peter Schwendnter. "I have nightmares, seeing my daughter drown slowly, painfully. It's like a torture chamber inside my head." Both families have left their children's bedrooms untouched, as memorials.

Friends of Szabolcs, who was an avid soccer player and fan, brought over a life-sized photograph of him. His mother put it up on the wall behind his bed, where he used to hang a banner of his favorite team, FC Bayern Munich, the most successful German soccer club.

"I go into his room every day and touch the photo lovingly," she said, weeping. "If I go in there 100 times, I touch it 100 times." She took down the soccer banner and laid it beside his grave, she said.

During the trial, the families' lawyers, Robert Mongeluzzi, Ronai and Ronai's wife, Holly, will be arguing that the companies that owned and operated the three vessels involved in the accident – the Ride the Ducks vessel, the barge and the tugboat pushing the barge – were negligent in numerous ways.

The Schwendtners, Csirke and the Prems all will be in the courtroom for opening arguments on Monday before U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O'Neill, and remain for the first week of the trial, which is expected to last more than a month.

The substance of the case has to do with limited-liability rules in maritime cases.

The families' attorneys say that K-Sea Transportation Partners, the owner-operator of the tugboat, which was pushing the barge, along with the Georgia-based company which operates Ride the Ducks, is contending that according to an 1851 federal law, its maximum liability should be the value of the vessels involved in the accident.

The companies have reportedly set the tug's value at $1.65 million and the Ride the Ducks vehicle at $150,000 (based on the value of the salvaged craft). Mongeluzzi said he and his colleagues will argue that the accident resulted from inadequate employee training and repeated failures to enforce safety policies and procedures both on the tugboat and the Ride the Ducks vessel.

Spokesmen for Ride the Ducks and K-Sea said they could not comment on pending litigation.

In November, the tugboat pilot, Matthew Devlin, was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Devlin, 35, had been distracted on his cell phone and laptop, concerned about his own child's health after a mishap while under anesthesia.

"He isn't the only one to blame," said Peter Schwendtner. "The drivers of the Duck Boat were just as guilty as Matt, if not more. And the corporations. The people on the boats, they make human errors, but the corporations' policies and procedures allowed this accident to exist . . . What good is a rule if it's not enforced?"

"The corporations should hire experienced people who know what they're doing," added Sandor Prem. "Not people who are only fit to drive a horse carriage." He wrung his thick hands and placed them on the knees of his worn jeans. "But all the changes don't bring back our children. Why do the changes always have to come after someone dies?"

For the mothers, Sunday was particularly difficult, they said, because it is the Hungarian Mother's Day.

On most occasions like this, Sandor Prem takes his wife away from home to try to keep her mind off the loss of their son. And on Christmas, the families have started a tradition, going to a castle where they celebrate, and mourn, in each other's company.

"But it doesn't matter where we go," said Mari Prem. "Honestly, our attention cannot be brought away." Should their lawyers prevail in the case, they will likely receive substantial sums of money.

"I don't like to talk about that," said Sandor Prem. "This is not about money. It's about punishment."

Aniko Schwendtner, holding back sobs, wiped her eyes with a tissue. "And anyway, how much are you going to pay for the loss of your child?"