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The fatal history of Philly’s duck boats

Philadelphia had a rocky past with Ride the Ducks before the company suspended its local operation in 2016.

A Ride the Ducks vessel emerges from the Delaware River in 2011. Ride the Ducks left Philadelphia in 2016 after a fatal 13 years of operation.
A Ride the Ducks vessel emerges from the Delaware River in 2011. Ride the Ducks left Philadelphia in 2016 after a fatal 13 years of operation.Read moreMichael Bryant

At one time, it was not uncommon to see flocks of tourists carted throughout Philadelphia in boats on wheels.

Ride the Ducks — an amphibious city tour — was once a popular Philadelphia tourist draw. But in October 2016, the company suspended operations in the city.

In the wake of a duck boat disaster that claimed the lives of 17 people in Branson, Mo. on Thursday, the vehicles and their use for tourism are being scrutinized again. Here's a look at duck boats' fatal history in Philadelphia.

>> READ MORE: Death toll from Missouri duck boat accident climbs to 17

The start

The Ride the Ducks franchise, which is headquartered where the Missouri tragedy took place, began operating in Philadelphia in 2003.

A deadly accident on the Delaware

Less than a decade later,  the company was involved in its first fatal accident in the city.

On July 7, 2010, a barge pushed by a tugboat struck a duck boat stranded in the Delaware River off Penn's Landing after an engine fire.

Once struck, the amphibious craft capsized and two Hungarian tourists drowned.

The tugboat's pilot, the Inquirer reported, was on his cellphone handling a family emergency. He served a one-year sentence for "the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter."

>> READ MORE: What are duck boats? An explanation of the amphibious vehicles

Ride the Ducks and K-Sea Transportation Partners, which owned the tugboat, faced lawsuits and were ordered to give the families of the deceased $15 million. They also were required to pay $2 million to be split among the survivors of the crash.

Fatal crash in Center City

Five years after that incident, a duck boat was involved in another fatality, this time on land.

Elizabeth Karnicki, 68, was run over and killed by a Ride the Ducks vehicle in May 2015.

Witnesses said Karnicki was crossing the street against a red light while looking at an electronic tablet near the Convention Center when she was struck, the Inquirer reported at the time.

The operator of the vehicle had a green light, and was unable to see Karnicki, likely because duck boat drivers sit high and about ten feet behind the front of the boat, said the Inquirer.

>> READ MORE: Duck boats have a history of fatalities

Karnicki's family sued the boat's operator and manufacturer, as well as the city, citing the vehicle's blind spots, distracted driving and inadequate crossing signals.

The lawsuit was settled during summer 2017 under undisclosed terms.

On-again, off-again operations

With the two deadly incidents, Ride the Ducks had a start-and-stop tenure in Philadelphia. The company's operations on the Delaware were halted after the 2010 accident. A months later, Ride the Ducks planned to move to the Schuylkill, but that shift was halted when the city rejected its proposal and the company instead resumed boat tours on the Delaware, with some changes.

In October 2016, the company announced it would "indefinitely" suspend operations in Philly due, in part, to a 330 percent increase in insurance premiums, the Inquirer reported.

>> READ MORE: Ride the Ducks suspends operations in Philadelphia

Robert J. Mongeluzzi, the lawyer who represented the families of all three victims, had been vocal in his opposition to the boats. When Ride the Ducks left Philadelphia, he told the Inquirer he would not miss the sightseeing vehicles.

"The ducks are dangerous," he said. "They are inappropriate for city streets, they're a danger on the land and on the water, and I'm glad to see them go."