Memorial planned for duck boat accident victims

Pictured: Szabolcs Prem and Dora Schwendtner

July 10, 2010 3:20:04 AM PDT
Police retrieved a second body Friday from the Delaware River after they recovered the duck boat that was struck by a barge and capsized, leaving two young Hungarians missing.

The body, presumably that of 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem, was spotted around 10:00 a.m. as salvage workers were making preparations to raise the sunken duck boat from the bottom of the Delaware River.

However, the body then became lodged underneath the salvage barge being used to retrieve the submerged boat.

Around 3:00 p.m. and after the boat was retrieved, police finally managed to recover the body. A police boat pulled the body on board about a block downriver from where it surfaced.

While no official identification has been made, authorities at the scene said there was every indication that it was Prem's body.

This comes as Hungarian officials say that the body recovered from the Delaware River earlier Friday morning is that of 16-year-old Dora Schwentner, who had been one of two Hungarian tourists missing since Wednesday's collision.

Her body was recovered around 4:45 a.m. south of the Walt Whitman Bridge by members of the Philadelphia Fire Department. The bridge is down the river from the site of the collision.

Police said the body was first spotted by a fishing boat.

Also on Friday salvage workers managed to raise the sunken duck boat from the bottom of the Delaware River.

Salvage operations began around 9:00 a.m. Friday with a 25-ton crane mounted on a barge. Authorities say the sunken vessel is in about 50 feet of water.

At about 1:30 p.m., the top of the duck boat broke the surface of the water, and crews brought it onto the barge a short time later.

As the boat came up, unused life jackets bobbed to the surface of the water.

A large crowd gathered to watch it all unfold. Among the crowd was the deckhand on the ill-fated duck boat, Kyle Burkhardt. He had nothing to say to Action News.

As soon as the boat was brought to shore, investigators began pouring over the craft. They immediately went to the engine compartment, apparently looking for evidence of the fire that witnesses said appeared to disable the vessel.

The salvage operation was paid for by "Ride the Ducks," owners of the submerged duck boat.

"We all want to bring closure to the families, it's unfortunate we can't bring their loved ones back, but we at least hope to bring some closure by finding the bodies," Captain Todd Gatlin of the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Schwentner and Prem are members of a Hungarian tour group being hosted by Marshallton United Methodist Church, located in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The pastor told Action News that many of the 37 passengers on the boat were connected to his church. Seven people were members, while 15 were visitors from Hungary.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said there would be a private memorial for the victims at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Independence Seaport Museum.

At a prayer vigil at the church Thursday night, a candle was lit for each accident victim. Pastor Widmer comforted the congregation strength and took a moment to pray with certain individuals.

"I think when we're hurting, it's important to get together and find that sense of connection, not only with each other, but with the Lord, and I think when you get together, there's an ability to get through the difficult times," church member Denita Connor of West Chester, Pennsylvania said.

If you would like to offer financial assistance to the Hungarian visitors who were victims of this accident:

Hungarian Student Emergency Relief Fund
EPA of the UMC
PO Box 820
Valley Forge, Pa. 19482-0820

Memo line: Disaster - Marshallton UMC

Investigation into crash continues

The National Transportation Safety Board conducted a cursory inspection of the switches, knobs, and controls on the duck, number 34, but found very little impact damage.

They also interviewed passengers and the two crew members aboard the duck - the master of the duck, a 58-year-old man, who is in his third season with 'Ride the Ducks' and the deckhand, 18, who has been with the company for two seasons.

The master used duck number 34 often and told authorities, as usual, he had inspected the tour boat himself the day of the accident.

The accident occurred on his third trip of the day. The NTSB says after splashing the boat in the water, noting no traffic concerns in the river, the deckhand took the controls and the master sat in the jump seat.

After noticing smoke, but no flames, they decided to radio channel 13, a bridge to bridge channel, drop anchor, and send for another duck boat, but then about five to ten minutes later, they spotted the barge and the tug around 400 yards away.

"They told us that he called to the tug and barge to change course," Sumwalt said.

Nowhere in the interview did the master say they heard confirmation from the other crew.

He recalled trying to signal with the air horn, but said it didn't work despite being inspected earlier.

It was close to the point of impact, that the NTSB said he gave the order to put on life vests.

"They told amazing stories of heroism," said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt. "One young man said he gave his life jacket to someone else, then he swam to shore."

While the Coast Guard has no recordings of distress calls, it doesn't mean they weren't made.

Another issue to be examined is whether the tug boat was able to see the duck boat in the water because of any blind spot, an issue known to tug boat pilots.

Joseph Dady, president of the National Mariners Association and a tug boat pilot himself, told The Associated Press that tugs always have blind spots when they're pushing barges.

In this case, where the tug's wheel house was relatively low and the barge was light and floating high in the water, it could have been large he said.

He said the Coast Guard requires lookouts on board tugs or barges in situations like that, but that they're often not posted and the rule is not often enforced. U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Todd Gatlin disputed that the regulation is not enforced.

Tug pilots are also required to use radar to make sure they're not at risk of hitting other vessels. The duck boat did not have a radar reflector, so it's not clear whether it would show up on a boat's radar.

Interviews with the five crew on the tug were scheduled for Saturday.

The federal crew expected to remain in Philadelphia about a week longer, but will continue their probe in Washington.

Recap of the duck boat crash

The accident happened off Market Street and Columbus Boulevard around 2:40 p.m. Wednesday. The Coast Guard says 37 people were on the boat, including two crew members.

Philadelphia police say the boat had just entered the water south of the Ben Franklin Bridge and was to make a routine loop of the Delaware River when it suffered a small engine fire, rendering the boat helpless.

It was struck about 10 minutes later by a city-owned barge used to transport sludge pulled by a tugboat owned by K-Sea Transportation Partners of East Brunswick, N.J.

A woman on the boat, Sandy Cohen, said "A barge went into us. We had engine trouble, so we were just waiting for somebody else to come and tow us." When asked if she had any warning, Cohen said "Not about the barge," then added "Just very briefly."

Bystanders nearby could only watch the collision.

"They didn't blow a horn or anything. The people were trying to get out of the boat, I saw them trying to get out of the boat because they saw the barge coming; the barge just ran over the top of them, it, actually, sunk under," witness Omar Lamoumba said.

"It pretty much ran over that boat, it crushed it into pieces, everybody jumped off the boat. You could tell everybody had life vests," witness Eric Scharpf said.

Witness Tiffany Michaels told Action News: "People on the duck, from what I could tell, were standing up. It looked like they were in a state of panic, probably thinking 'should I jump or not?' at which point the barge hit the duck from behind. It looked like the duck boat had capsized, the barge plowed over it."

For now "Ride the Ducks" operations have been suspended.

"We'll resume operations when we're confident we've taken every step we can to prevent it from ever happening again," said Herschend.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.