Mate piloting tug in collision with duck boat likely to get prison term

The tugboat mate involved in the fatal collision with a duck tour boat in the Delaware River likely will go to prison and surrender his merchant mariner's license.

Matthew R. Devlin pleaded guilty to misconduct in August under the federal Seaman's Manslaughter Statute. The U.S. Attorney's office in Philadelphia said the likely sentence will be over three years in prison.

Devlin, 35, of Catskill, N.Y., piloted Caribbean Sea when its sludge barge struck a disabled duck tour boat, DUKW 34, on July 7, 2010, in Philadelphia. Two passengers on the anchored tour boat were killed.

In court, Devlin apologized to the victims' families and explained that he was told during the voyage that his own 5-year-old son had experienced a life-threatening complication during eye surgery.

"I really wish I could take it all back," Devlin said. He said he "didn't make the best decisions” after learning of the child's emergency and "I just wasn't thinking clearly after getting that news."

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said Devlin was not paying full attention to other river traffic when the barge The Resource struck the broken-down duck boat. Instead, he was preoccupied with family conversations.

"For an extended period of time prior to the collision, (the mate) was distracted by his use of a cell phone and a laptop computer to attend to personal matters," the U.S. Attorney said in a statement. He "elected to pilot the Caribbean Sea from its lower wheelhouse, where he had significantly reduced visibility in comparison to the perspective from the upper wheelhouse."

The mate also "did not maintain a proper lookout or comply with other essential rules of seamanship," the statement said.

The case followed a probe by the Coast Guard Investigative Service and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The incident was one factor that prompted the U.S. Coast Guard last year to urge commercial operators to adopt policies prohibiting the use of personal electronic devices when they would hamper situational awareness.

The NTSB said the vessel's master had instructed Devlin to operate Caribbean Sea from the upper wheelhouse. He also was not monitoring radios while other vessels were attempting to warn of the impending collision. His employer, K-Sea Transportation Partners LP, had a policy prohibiting the use of personal cell phones while on watch,.

"Had the mate of the Caribbean Sea informed the master or K-Sea Transportation management of the serious family medical emergency, he would likely have been granted relief from the watch," the NTSB wrote in its findings.

The NTSB said the mate made or accepted 18 calls during the voyage. He was on the phone with his mother at the moment of the crash.

Devlin's guilty plea includes tentative parameters for a prison sentence of 37 to 46 months. His Coast Guard license will be permanently revoked. He may argue for a lighter prison sentence. Sentencing in U.S. District Court will occur in late 2011.

"Those who operate transport vessels on our waterways have a clear duty to ensure that proper sight lines are maintained at all times, and to obey all other rules of seamanship, so that the risks to others on the water are minimized," the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement. "When that duty is breached, the Seaman's Manslaughter Statute allows the federal government to seek criminal sanctions against the vessel operator."

Devlin's attorney, Frank DeSimone, declined to comment.

The 250-foot sludge barge The Resource is owned by the city of Philadelphia. It struck the 33-foot DUKW 34 after the tour vessel had stalled in the river's navigation channel.

The duck boat is operated by Ride The Ducks International LLC. The NTSB said the engine overheated because maintenance workers did not secure the surge tank pressure cap.

The NTSB recommended that K-Sea and Ride The Ducks review their safety management programs to ensure that employees understand and follow policies. The NTSB recommended that American Waterways Operators (AWO) notify its membership of the circumstances of the accident and encourage all members to understand and adhere to safety and emergency procedures.

Ride The Ducks temporarily suspended operations in Philadelphia while assessing new safety practices. Tours resumed in April.

Although the AWO hasn't yet officially received the NTSB's recommendation, the AWO safety committee has already begun discussing it, said an AWO spokeswoman.

By Professional Mariner Staff