Two killed when tug and barge overrun anchored duck boat

Federal authorities are investigating whether anyone on a tugboat was paying attention when its barge ran over a duck tour boat, killing two passengers, in the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

The Ride the Ducks tour boat is lowered onto a barge after being salvaged from the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
(AP/Matt Rourke photo)

Caribbean Sea was pushing the 250-foot sludge barge The Resource when it plowed into the tour boat DUKW 34 at 1437 on July 7. The duck boat had been anchored in the shipping channel for five to 10 minutes after experiencing a mechanical problem, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

As the tug and barge approached from about 400 yards downriver, the tugboat crew didn’t answer radio warnings from the disabled tour boat, witnesses reported. Also attempting to get Caribbean Sea‘s attention was the tugboat Freedom, whose operator issued a frantic radio call to the towing vessel as it neared the passenger boat.

“Hey! Ferry! Ferry! FERRY!! Whoa! Whoa! WHOA! WHOA!!” the Freedom crewman shouted before reporting to the U.S. Coast Guard: “One of the duck boats over on Penn’s Landing looks like it just got run over by barge. I’m going over there to pick ’em up.”

Moments later, he added: “This is Freedom. We’ve got people in the water!”

U.S. Navy sailors from Special Boat Team 20 responded to the accident and rescued nine of the duck boat’s passengers from the water.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

After several minutes passed, the Caribbean Sea crew could finally be heard on the audio recordings, which the Coast Guard released to the public.

“We’re the ones that, I guess, capsized the duck boat,” the voice from Caribbean Sea said, before offering to stick around and try to provide assistance. “We do have a barge alongside, so there’s not too much we can do.”

DUKW 34, which sank in 55 feet of water, was carrying 35 passengers and two crew. They were wearing life jackets as a precaution after the mechanical breakdown about 150 feet from shore. Good Samaritan vessels, police boats and one U.S. Navy vessel rescued the survivors within a few minutes. Two passengers — both Hungarians on a student trip — drowned.

The 2,400-hp Caribbean Sea is owned and operated by K-Sea Transportation Partners LP, based in East Brunswick, N.J. The Resource, which was empty, is owned by the city of Philadelphia.

A duck boat is a restored amphibious military vehicle that is used for city street and water tours. Originally built in 1945, DUKW 34 is owned an operated by Ride The Ducks, a division of Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. of Norcross, Ga. It is a Coast Guard-inspected passenger vessel.

The NTSB interviewed the duck boat’s captain and deck hand. They reported that they tried to communicate with Caribbean Sea on the radio. They also attempted to sound the tour vessel’s horn, which didn’t work.

“They told investigators that their radio calls to the Caribbean Sea received no response,” the NTSB said in a statement. “The NTSB also interviewed the operators of several vessels in the area at the time of the accident, and they stated that they recalled hearing the DUKW 34‘s radio calls on Channel 13.”

Caribbean Sea had a crew of five: master, mate, engineer and two deck hands. The mate and one deck hand were on watch at the time of the accident. The deck hand was not assigned as a lookout. The NTSB said it interviewed everyone who was awake when the collision happened. The mate, who was in charge of piloting the tow, didn’t cooperate.

“When the NTSB sought to interview the mate, he exercised his Fifth Amendment right and refused to meet with investigators,” the NTSB said.

The NTSB is studying harbor video footage to determine whether anyone was in the Caribbean Sea‘s upper or lower pilothouses. Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for K-Sea, declined to say whether the company believes that anyone was keeping a lookout in either of the pilothouses. Wilson said the company would have no comment until the federal investigation is completed.

The duck boat captain reported that he turned the boat’s engine off because smoke was detected. The company noted that the NTSB statement confirmed that the captain made an effort to warn the oncoming tow.

“It indicates that our captain made calls to the tug that went unanswered, but were heard by others,” said Bob Salmon, a vice president at Ride The Ducks.

The tug and barge were traveling upriver at between 5.5 and 5.9 knots when the collision happened, according to vessel traffic data provided by PortVision. Caribbean Sea was made up to the port side of the barge, near the stern.

K-Sea suspended the mate, with pay, pending further findings, said William Harrigan, president of the Local 333 of the United Marine Division of the International Longshoremen’s Association. The union also is probing the incident, which happened in clear weather.

“It was daylight, so I don’t know what happened that he wasn’t able to see that boat sitting there,” Harrigan said of the mate. “Anytime you’re in the upper wheelhouse, because of your line of sight, it’s usually a little better. If you’re in the lower wheelhouse, your sight is more restricted.”

Ten duck boat passengers had minor injuries, the NTSB said. A crane barge from Weeks Marine recovered the sunken duck boat in 55 feet of water. Investigators were continuing to assess the damage in August.

After the accident, the city suspended its contract with K-Sea and gave the barge work instead to McAllister Towing and Transportation Co., a New York-based company with boats at nearby Gloucester City, N.J. McAllister had the contract for about 10 years before recently being outbid by K-Sea.

Harrigan said K-Sea was operating with the proper number of crew, in accord with the union contract. He said the company has a good record of following the contract.

“Lookouts are going to be something that’s going to be talked about a lot after these incidents in the industry,” Harrigan said. “You have deck hands doing all sorts of things inside the boat.”

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff