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VIDEO: Chilling accounts of fatal duck boat crash in day one of civil trial

Attorneys lay blame on operators K-Sea and Ride the Ducks, employees testify about procedural oversights and chilling testimony tells the story firsthand.

Hungarian exchange student Dora Schwendtner, 16, killed in 2010 when a tugboat-towed barge capsized a duck boat in the Delaware River, spent the last moments of her life saving an employee whose company stands accused of contributing to her death, according to a video shown in federal court yesterday as the families of Schwendtner and fellow victim Szabolcs Prem, 20, watched stoically.

"They can see this barge coming at them and realize there's no escape," lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi said of the Ride the Ducks boat employees in the moments before they were slammed by the empty ship pushed by K-Sea Operating Partnership. "[Deckhand] Kyle Burkhardt jumps into the water, saving his own life. Only one person cares about someone other than themselves."

The clip shows a shadowy figure tossing a flotation device down from the sinking vessel. "Right there is 16-year-old Dora," Mongeluzzi said. "She throws a life preserver to Burkhardt, saving his life. She gives up her life to save his."

That and several other details came out yesterday in the families' quest to keep Ride the Ducks and K-Sea from capping the amount of financial liability owed to the value of their vessels. The families' attorneys argued an 1800s maritime law does not apply because both companies were long aware of procedural oversights that contributed to the crash.

"These two children are dead because of failures of the defendants regarding issues they knew about," Mongeluzzi said. Those included a lack of employee training, widespread cell phone use and a failure to follow emergency procedures on both vessels, lawyers claimed.

Attorneys said Ride the Ducks Capt. Gary Fox never told passengers to don life vests and called the company's office for help rather than emergency services when he cut power to the smoking sightseeing ship, leaving it idling in a busy channel.

But the company's representatives admitted no responsibility, saying the boat was stopped in a permitted area, Fox had no reason to believe the passengers were in imminent danger and that tugboat First Mate Matthew Devlin was pushing the 250-foot barge "deaf and dumb."

Attorneys for K-Sea also shifted much of the blame to Devlin – currently jailed for his role in the incident – who was informed shortly before the crash of complications during an operation performed on his son. Lawyers said Devlin moved to the tug's lower pilothouse where visibility was poor, turned down the radio volume, made numerous phone calls and even performed an internet search on his son's condition.

"This isn't about K-Sea's policies and procedures at all because Devlin was not thinking about policies and procedures," attorney Wayne Meehan said. "K-Sea management could not have been aware that Devlin would lose his faculties to proceed upriver."

Fatal error

"The most important information from today was the deckhand of the tug testifying that he didn't know he was supposed to make rounds and check on Devlin every hour," Mongeluzzi said outside the courthouse. "He should have checked on him ten minutes beforehand, but he had no knowledge of the policy."

Deckhand Luis Fernandez said he was told to make safety checks "every few hours," despite a rule in K-Sea's policy handbook that they be completed each hour. The duck boat involved in the fatal crash launched around 1 p.m., meaning Fernandez should have been making his second round of checks before or during the 2:37 p.m. accident.

Instead, he was sitting in the boat's galley with engineer Pablo Battista, who was also supposed to be on watch. Fernandez only stirred when he heard the engine slow. "I looked out the porthole and saw people in the water and life jackets floating," he said. "They were screaming and crying. ... By the time I got out, there was nothing I could do."

'Metal everywhere'

"I didn't see any resemblance of a duck boat being present in the water once I came up," said St. Louis school psychologist Alysia Petchulat, 34, who sat with her young son near Schwendtner and Prem on the tour during a one-day visit to Philadelphia. "In feeling around, it felt like I was going through metal and there was metal everywhere."

She said that after the ship overheated and its engine was powered down, crew members waved a second passing duck boat along. "There was a conversation taking place between the two basically saying, 'We're fine, they're coming to get us,'" she said

 
 
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