The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has determined that the mate operating a tugboat last summer was distracted by his repeated use of a cell phone and a laptop computer and failed to maintain a proper lookout while towing a barge up the Delaware River.
This photo shows the control station in the lower wheelhouse of the tugboat with the laptop and cell phone on top of the steering control system.
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That barge hit a Ride the Ducks boat, killing two and sending 35 others abord the tourist boat into the busy shipping channel.
The NTSB cited the mate's inattentiveness as the probable cause of the July 2010 accident.
Investigators found that the mate piloting the barge was on his cell phone dealing with a family emergency at the same time the duck boat was stalled in the Delaware River. It was also discovered that a company laptop computer was used by the crew member for personal use, in violation of official policy, before the crash.
"The use of electronic devices and their ability to distract each of us has the potential to reach epidemic proportions. It is well past time to pay attention," said NTSB Chairman Hersman.
Hungarian students Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, died in the accident.
“This accident draws attention to the actions and decisions of one individual and highlights the tragic consequences of not following procedures. But more importantly, it provides yet another data point in our investigations of accidents caused by distraction involving electronic devices, “ said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman in her closing statement.
The investigation also found that a crew member on the duck boat may have also been distracted by his cell phone.
According to the NTSB, this photo, taken six minutes before the collision, shows the deckhand using his cell phone to send a text message.
Ride The Ducks released a statement in response to the NTSB final report.
"The hearing today indicated this tragedy could have been avoided if the Caribbean Sea [tugboat] mate had been doing his job. The NTSB also noted our commitment to safety, exceeding industry requirements. Working with the Coast Guard, we will maintain and continue to improve our safety culture," said Chris Herschend, RTD president.
The families of the two victims who died in the Duck boat collision watched the NTSB meeting live online from Hungary and reacted with one word when it was over, "Shock," according to attorney Peter Ronai. "They're in shock that there were so many colossal errors."
Attorney for the families have repeatedly referred to the Duck boats as "floating death cages" because of their canopies.
"The problem with the canopies is that if you put your life jacket on inside the Duck boat, you can't get out the window," said Robert Mongeluzzi, one of the attorneys.
"In 2002, the NTSB recommended that the canopies of duck boats be removed because they entrap and drown their passengers. Ride the Ducks failed to heed their recommendations in 2002 and still has not heeded their recommendations," Mongeluzzi said when Ride the Ducks went back on the water this spring.
The five-member Board voted Tuesday to approve the findings, probable cause and recommendations following the nearly year-long investigation.
The NTSB recommended that the operators of the tugboat and the duck boats review all safety and emergency procedures. The NTSB also issued recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard to increase focus on and oversight of inappropriate use of cell phones and other wireless electronic devices by on-duty crewmembers in safety-critical positions.