The crew of the ill-fated Duck Boat that was hit by a barge on Wednesday in Philadelphia desperately attempted to send an SOS and sound an airhorn, but the calls went unheeded and the airhorn failed.
In the first official account of the series of events leading up to the fatal duck boat crash on Wednesday that resulted in the deaths of two Hungarian tourists, boat master Gary Fox, deckhand Kyle Burkhardt and 16 passengers were interviewed Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Fox is a three-year employee of “Ride the Ducks,” and Burkhardt is in his second year with the company. The passengers interviewed included 11 Hungarian students, two Hungarian teachers and three American students.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Fox, 58, said that he conducted a 20 minute inspection of the duck boat before setting out that day, and no irregularities were found. The doomed ride was his third tour of the day, Fox said, and he picked up Burkhardt, 18, before they entered the water at Race Street, noticing no “traffic of concern.” Upon entering the water, Burkhardt took the helm under the supervision of Fox. While heading downriver, Fox noticed white smoke, which Burkhardt described as smelling like “burning rubber.” Both deny that there were any flames.
According to Sumwalt, Burkhardt told investigators that the smoke dissipated quickly, but he decided to shut down the engine when he found the engine compartment to be warm. At this point, he turned off the battery powering the engine, leaving the 30-foot amphibious duck boat stopped in the shipping channel.
Fox said he radioed nearby vessels that he was stopped on the river via Channel 13, a ship-to-ship communications channel, then called his dispatcher to send another duck boat to get his passengers. The standard emergency channel which the Coast Guard monitors is Channel 16. When the next duck boat tour appeared, filled to capacity, and asked if they needed assistance, Fox told him no.
Fox and Burkhardt saw the 250-foot long barge, which was being pushed by a tugboat and which Sumwalt estimated was possibly moving at 5 m.p.h., when it was about 400 yards away. At this point, Fox turned the battery back on and tried to radio the tugboat crew. When he tried to sound the airhorn, that had worked fine during his morning inspection, it failed.
NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway told the Inquirer that investigators will interview the tugboat’s captain, first mate and three others on Saturday. They will be questioned on where the tugboat captain was at the time of the accident, whether they were monitoring Channels 13 Channel 16 and whether there was a look-out on the barge or tugboat.
In the Inquirer report, Fox and Burkhardt said they did instruct passengers to don life vests. According to the 16 passengers interviewed, none was told to jump into the water as had previously been reported by some survivors. Sumwalt praised the heroism of the survivors, telling of one man who gave his life jacket to someone else and swam to shore.
Despite initial reports that the duck boat had broken apart on impact, it was retrieved remarkably intact on Friday, with only a broken canopy and bent frame. (View images of crash, rescue and retrieval here.) A 10-man crew used a crane from a barge to raise the 18,000-pound vehicle. East Coast Salvage head Jason Marchioni told the Inquirer that work was slowed as they were force to wait for a slack tide. Commercial diver Hector Aguilar found the duck 55 feet below, sitting upright, and described visibility as only two to three feet. By midafternoon, a crowd that at times reached 100 had gathered on shore to watch the boat raising.
“Ride the Ducks” announced on Saturday that operations in Atlanta, Branson, Missouri, San Francisco and Newport, Kentucky, will resume, but the Philadelphia operations will remain shut down until further notice “out of respect to the families.”
Previous Reports: Philadelphia Duck Boat Hit by Barge; Sunken Duck Boat Located in Delaware, Two Still Missing; Body of Duck Boat Crash Victim Recovered from Delaware River; Second Body Spotted; Duck Boat Tour Passengers Describe Crash and Sinking in Delaware River; Second Body and Duck Boat Pulled from Delaware River; Sources: Calls for Help and Alarm Attempts Failed; NTSB to Interview Tug Crew