Pilot Matt Devlin said he "didn't really make the best decisions" aboard the tug after learning that his 5-year-old son had suffered life-threatening complications during routine eye surgery. His distraction ultimately resulted in the barge plowing into the duck boat on the Delaware River, killing two Hungarian students.
"I wish I could take it all back ... I just wasn't thinking clearly after getting that news," Devlin said during a federal court hearing.
The remarks by Devlin, 35, of Catskill, N.Y., were his first public statements since the crash last summer involving the tug Caribbean Sea, the barge Resource and the duck boat, an amphibious tourist vehicle.
The accident occurred in Philadelphia on July 7, 2010, after the duck boat stalled in the busy shipping channel. As it sat anchored, awaiting help, the barge began bearing down and Devlin didn't respond to distress calls because he had silenced the radios to talk on the phone, authorities said.
Devlin had learned shortly before the crash that his son had been deprived of oxygen for about eight minutes during surgery. He then repeatedly made and received calls on his phone, surfed the Internet for medical information and moved to a lower wheelhouse for more privacy - putting the duck boat in his blind spot, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"I believe that took away the best view," Devlin said Monday.
The crash sent all 37 people on the duck boat into the river, but 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem never resurfaced. The Hungarians were visiting the United States through a church exchange program; their families have filed wrongful-death lawsuits.
Devlin was charged with misconduct of a ship operator causing death, a maritime offense that authorities describe as the equivalent of involuntary manslaughter. As a condition of the plea agreement, he also surrendered his Coast Guard license. He faces 37 to 46 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer described the medical emergency as "a legitimate personal crisis" and called Devlin "very remorseful." Still, he said Devlin should have handled it better.
"What he needed to do, obviously, was turn over his duties to the captain of the ship and not try to deal with two things at the same time," Zauzmer said after the hearing.
Devlin's lawyer, Frank DeSimone, stressed said that his client wasn't talking "frivolously" on his cellphone. Although Devlin's son, now 6, has fully recovered, at the time Devlin thought the boy might die or suffer brain damage, DeSimone said.
"As soon as he was told about what happened to his son, he was in a fog," DeSimone said.
The attorney said Devlin has repeated nightmares about the crash. Devlin himself said in court that he's been seeing a psychiatrist, is on medication and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Devlin shared an emotional hug with his wife after the hearing. He declined to comment and was released on bond pending sentencing Nov. 1.
Georgia-based Ride the Ducks offers tours in Philadelphia; San Francisco; Branson, Mo.; Stone Mountain, Ga.; and the Cincinnati area.
The company suspended its Philadelphia tours after the accident but resumed them this spring, albeit with a shortened water route.
The boats did not operate on the anniversary of the crash.