MARITIME SAFETY | Preventing duck boat tragedy would not have taken much

Excerpts from

Ten feet.

Had Matthew R. Devlin walked that far, he could have alerted his tugboat captain that he was experiencing a family emergency, in all likelihood saving the lives of two Hungarian tourists who died in the July 2010 duck-boat accident.

One minute.

Had Devlin, the first mate, kept watch as the tug pushed a 250-foot barge down the Delaware River, that is all the time he would have needed to turn his boat to avoid the collision that killed Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20.

Two lives were lost because of failures both small and epic that day, leading to a $17 million settlement Wednesday for the families and 18 surviving passengers when the federal lawsuit suddenly ended after less than two days of testimony.


Devlin, who is serving a one-year prison sentence for the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter, said in his deposition that he often talked on his cell at work.

“You weren’t some rogue employee who was using your personal cellphone while on watch while no one else did it. … In fact, you were doing what everybody else did, right?” Mongeluzzi asked Devlin.

“Yes,” Devlin replied.

He also testified that hearing about his son had caused him to stop thinking clearly.

His deposition makes painfully clear how little it would have taken to prevent the accident. Devlin knew that K-Sea’s policy was to alert another crew member if he was experiencing a problem.

“How far away was the captain’s cabin from where you were,” Meehan asked.

“Ten feet,” Devlin responded.

“Could you have easily called the captain?” Meehan continued.

“If I was thinking clearly, yes,” Devlin said.


Mongeluzzi also argued that evidence showed repeated failures by Ride the Ducks. The company’s air horn, which could have sounded a warning to Devlin, did not work because Capt. Fox had turned off the engine.

Fox also did not tell passengers to don life jackets until moments before the collision, even though the duck had been stranded on the water for about 12 minutes.

In his deposition, Fox said he did not believe his passengers were imperiled until moments before the barge hit. He feared that passengers would become uncomfortable or sick if they put on life vests.

“I didn’t need anybody passing out or having anybody having heatstroke or any related heat issues,” Fox said.

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended Fox’s maritime license for five months because he did not ask passengers to don life jackets and because he failed to call the Coast Guard when the duck boat was stranded.


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