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Philadelphia river crash remains a mystery

Even though the amphibious vehicle known as "Duck 34" wallowed powerless in the Delaware River for about 15 minutes before its fatal sinking, no distress call was ever received by the Coast Guard, investigators said Thursday.

A Coast Guard boat cruises the Delaware River at Penn's Landing near where the barge struck Duck 34 the day before.
A Coast Guard boat cruises the Delaware River at Penn's Landing near where the barge struck Duck 34 the day before.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Even though the amphibious vehicle known as "Duck 34" wallowed powerless in the Delaware River for about 15 minutes before its fatal sinking, no distress call was ever received by the Coast Guard, investigators said Thursday.

The Wednesday afternoon accident - which sent 35 passengers and two crew members into the water, and apparently killed two passengers - has left investigators with a puzzle: Why did two vessels equipped with radios, required to keep a lookout, and crewed by licensed mariners, crash in clear weather on a sunny day?

Some answers may be known Friday, when the National Transportation Safety Board plans to interview the tugboat's five-person crew, and the captain and deckhand who were on Duck 34. It was struck by a 250-foot-long barge being pushed by the tug.

The NTSB will have to determine if proper radio warnings were broadcast by Duck 34, and whether the crew aboard the tug Caribbean Sea was monitoring marine radio and keeping a lookout as it steamed upriver, and pushing before it a city-owned, 250-foot barge called the Resource.

A Duck 34 passenger, Alysia Petchulat, 31, said the captain, Gary Fox, initially had used a radio to call the Ride the Ducks office to arrange for a tow.

Fox "tried to call three or four times" when he spotted the barge and realized it was bearing down on his immobile vessel, Petchulat said.

Marine radio broadcasts can be heard by anyone with a radio tuned to an identical channel. If Fox followed Coast Guard rules, he would have used Channel 13, which the tug was required to monitor.

As Petchulat, of Illinois, recalled the scene, Fox said, "Stop. . . . We are anchored down, and we cannot move. . . . We are right here. Please see us."

"They never responded," Petchulat said of the tug.

Meanwhile, details on the missing passengers, Hungarian tourists, have started to emerge. The Coast Guard identified them as Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szablcs Prem, 20. The Coast Guard officially halted its search for them Thursday at 6:55 p.m.

Anna Gyulai Gaál, a reporter for the national newspaper Bors, said the two were from Mosonmagyaróvár, a town of 33,000 close to the Austrian border.

A group of 13 students from the local high school and two teachers arrived in the United States on last Friday, Gaál said, and were scheduled to return July 23. The trip was arranged through Marshallton United Methodist Church in West Chester.

Marshallton was linked to the Hungarian youths via a Dutch Christian organization that connects young people from around the world.

Duck 34's final journey started around 1:30 p.m. near the National Constitution Center. It entered the river on a ramp at the end of Race Street, and headed south near the shoreline until its engine died shortly before 2:30 p.m.

A captain with Ride the Ducks, Harry Burkhardt, said his 18-year-old son, Kyle, was a deckhand on Duck 34 Wednesday.

Kyle Burkhardt told his father that in the minutes before the accident, he and Fox made sure there was no threat of fire on board and that passengers were in their life jackets.

They also dropped Duck 34's anchor and alerted other duck-tour captains that they needed a tow.

Then, the elder Burkhardt said, his son told him that he looked up at the looming barge and dived off the front deck seconds before the accident.

Kyle told his father that "the boat was twisted in the collision. You could hear the metal crunching."

The accounts of survivors, and photographs of the impact, show Duck 34 partially submerged under the barge's high steel bow.

The photographs indicate the barge was moving slowly - there is little bow wave apparent, which would be easily visible if the barge were moving at high speed. The barge does not appear to have continued traveling upriver after the accident.

Standard procedures would have been for the Duck 34 crew to use Channel 13 to warn nearby shipping that it had lost power; the crew also had the option of alerting the Coast Guard on Channel 16, specifically designated for marine emergencies. Transmissions on that channel are automatically recorded.

Coast Guard Lt. Commander Matthew Rice said Thursday that there was no recording of a Mayday call on Channel 16 from either vessel.

Transmission on Channel 13 is not recorded, and Rice said the Coast Guard had learned of Duck 34's breakdown only in calls that came in after the accident.

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, said that the navigational and communication gear on the tug would be checked, and that crew members on both vessels would be checked for drugs. Alcohol tests were negative.

The NTSB will also likely try to determine if the engine problems on Duck 34 could have prevented radio transmissions.

Passengers on Duck 34 will also be interviewed.

Mike Hanson, a spokesman for tug firm, K-Sea Transportation Partners L.L.C., said the company was cooperating with the NTSB investigation, but would have no comment on the circumstances of the accident.

The sinking was the first on-water incident involving Ride the Ducks since it began operations in 2003 in Philadelphia, and it prompted the firm to shut down operations across the country. The company operates 15 ducks in Philadelphia, and designates each with a number.

Chris Herschend, president of Ride the Ducks, said, "We believe the operator followed all protocols including making a radio call." Company policy would have been for another boat to head out and assist with a tow, he said.

Herschend could not clarify what had caused the power loss. "I know there was an overheating. We don't know it was a fire," he said.

The vessel was built in 2003 to resemble a World War II-era DUKW, which transported troops, a company spokeswoman said.

Herschend said each vessel is inspected twice every day by company maintenance workers, once before they are put in the water and again at the end of the day. They are inspected annually by the Coast Guard, and subject to additional inspections when problems occur.

There are no records of any problems with the duck that broke down, and Herschend said that "to his knowledge," the vehicle had no problems Wednesday morning.

The company said that one duck vehicle overheated July 1 while onshore, and that three others had "symptoms" of overheating this season.

A 1999 accident killed 13 people when a World War II-era duck vehicle sank on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas. The NTSB suggested a variety of modifications to the 1940s amphibious vehicles. Sumwalt said he did not know whether the newer ducks in Philadelphia met those safety recommendations.

"That's something we're going to be looking at," he said. In general, he said, duck companies have not been responsive to the safety upgrades suggested by the NTSB in that report.

"Any time our recommendations are not acted upon, we have concerns about that," he said.

Herschend said he did not believe there were widespread problems with the company's duck tour vehicles. He described mechanical problems as "rare."

Duck 34 is expected to be raised Friday.