Families of students killed in duck boat crash speak on eve of trial

The pilot of this tug boat, photographed minutes after running over a duck boat last year, was blamed by the NTSB for distracted driving that led to two deaths.
RIKARD LARMA/METRO

The families of  Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, two Hungarian students killed when the Ride the Ducks boat they were on capsized in July 2010, were in town today on the eve of a federal court date.

“We want today in our son’s name what we always wanted: justice,” said Szabolcs’ father Sandor Prem. “Every day is filled with pain and sorrow made even deeper by knowing that those responsible – the barge owner and Ride the Ducks – have still not been held accountable.”

A tugboat owned and operated by K-Sea Transportation Partners pushed a 250-foot empty sludge barge into and over the amphibious sightseeing vessel as it idled in an active shipping channel on the Delaware River, sending 35 people and two crew members overboard.

Citing an 1851 maritime law, K-Sea and the Georgia-based Ride the Ducks International, LLC will appeal to a U.S. District Court judge Monday to cap their amount of financial liability based on the value of each of their vessels, which would be $1.65 million for the tugboat and $150,000 for the duck boat.

“To say that my son’s life is worth the value of a ship doesn’t make sense.  You can build another ship, but I can’t have another Szabolcs,” said his mother Maria Prem.

The provision under which the operators are seeking relief can only be invoked if they prove they were unaware of any contributing problems before the accident, a fact the families’ lawyers contest.

“The evidence to be presented at trial will conclusively establish that this accident was not a freak unpredictable occurrence, but occurred because of multiple egregious failures of K-Sea and Ride the Ducks to properly train their employees and to have adequate policies and procedures in place,” lawyers from Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky, a firm representing the complainants, said in a statement.

“The facts are overwhelming – they knew about the problems and failed to take action,” Robert Mongeluzzi said today. He referenced a twelve-minute video recently released by the complainants’ counsel that shows the moments leading up to the tragedy.

“I think it shows the devastating effect that not a single person was able to put on a life vest before impact,” he said, noting the number of vests that can be seen bobbing in the water after the crash. “It shows an abysmal failure on the part of Ride the Ducks. … They were told not to put their life vests on and that killed Dora and Szabolcs.”

The court date is just another chapter in the ongoing legal saga surrounding the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board last June released a 4,400 page report concluding that the duck boat overheated after an inexperienced mechanic performing his first unsupervised post-trip inspection the night before left the radiator cap off the engine, causing the captain to shut the vessel down during the tour because he believed there was a fire on board.

The report also found that tugboat First Mate Matthew Devlin failed to see the idling ship because he was distracted by his cell phone, a violation attorneys argue was a regular and widespread occurrence among K-Sea employees of which the company was aware and did not address. Devlin was sentenced to two years in prison in November after pleading guilty to a maritime charge similar to involuntary manslaughter.

Attorneys also cited the design of the duck boat, whose canopies trapped the victims underwater, and the tug’s lack of an emergency air horn and radio.

The families, whose wrongful death suit also names the City of Philadelphia, which owned the barge, said the prolonged timeline of the litigation has made the experience even more painful. “Every day I wonder how any parent could explain to their child what happened here, and how today we still have duck boats on the water on the same river where our Dora drowned,” said her father Peter Schwendtner.

“We still do not have answers. We still suffer. And we still cannot believe that there is still such a low regard for the lives of those lost long before the prime of their lives.”

The non-jury appeals trial is expected to last as long as four weeks and involve more than two dozen witnesses. The case will then move back to state court, where the wrongful death suit will be argued. Mongeluzzi estimated it will be “years” before the trial wraps up.


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