Operator of tug in fatal duck boat collision pleads guilty, sentenced to a year in prison

The mate who piloted the tugboat in the fatal 2010 collision with a duck tour boat in the Delaware River has been sentenced to a year in prison.

Matthew R. Devlin, 35, of Catskill, N.Y., admitted that he was not paying attention when his tow rammed the disabled duck boat, killing two Hungarian students.

Devlin pleaded guilty to misconduct under the federal Seaman's Manslaughter Statute and was sentenced in November 2011 in federal court in Philadelphia. In addition to his prison term, he agreed to surrender his merchant mariner license. He apologized to the victims' families.

"I feel responsibility for the deaths of these two students every single day with my heart and my mind," Devlin told the court.

On July 7, 2010, Devlin was piloting the tugboat Caribbean Sea, pushing the 250-foot sludge barge The Resource. During the voyage, he received word from his wife that their 5-year-old son had been deprived of oxygen during eye surgery and the child's life was perhaps in danger.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Devlin made or accepted 18 cell phone calls during the family crisis. He was speaking with his mother at the time of the collision with the 33-foot tour boat DUKW 34, which was anchored in the navigation channel after its engine overheated.

In court, Devlin admitted that he had climbed down from the upper wheelhouse, which offers a superior view of the river, to use the laptop computer in the lower wheelhouse, where the view is limited. He lowered the volume on the tug's marine emergency radio so it would be quiet enough for him to concentrate on the personal phone conversations. As a result, he never heard radio warnings that his barge was on a course to hit the tour boat.

Through it all, the preoccupied Devlin failed to maintain a proper lookout. He acknowledged that his employer, K-Sea Transportation Partners LP, had a policy prohibiting cell phone calls or using the wheelhouse computer for personal purposes.

Devlin pleaded guilty to misconduct of a ship operator causing death, a crime spelled out in the federal Seaman's Manslaughter Statute.

U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis sentenced Devlin to one year plus one day in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release. Davis said Devlin should have asked to be relieved from duty, as he had done on one previous occasion.

"You were pushing a barge the size of a football field," the judge said. "Very few people are entrusted with that level of responsibility."

Devlin was scheduled to surrender to federal prison authorities on Jan. 5.

Cmdr. Jonathan Maiorine, chief of the Coast Guard's prevention department in Sector Delaware Bay, said the result of the probe "has helped ensure there will be accountability and increased safety in the wake of this tragedy."

By Professional Mariner Staff