Duck boats returning to Philly after fatal crash

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April 19, 2011 8:27:27 PM PDT
Duck boat tours are returning to the Delaware River in Philadelphia, nine months after a collision with a barge killed two exchange students.

The revised river portion of the land-and-water tour this year will be shorter and closer to the Philadelphia shoreline.

Ride the Ducks has also pledged to adopt other safety precautions after discussions with the Coast Guard. And passengers won't be "quacking" their way through the 70-minute tour because of complaints from nearby residents about the duck-call noisemakers distributed to those on board.

Two Hungarian students were killed July 7 when a 2,100-ton city barge struck a disabled duck boat in the shipping channel, sinking the tour boat and dumping 35 passengers and two crew members into the river.

The pilot of the tug boat pushing the barge was distracted by cell phone calls about a family emergency, the National Transportation and Safety Board revealed in a recent report. Federal prosecutors are reviewing whether any charges should be filed against him or others in the crash.

The NTSB also noted that the driver of the duck boat failed to call the Coast Guard to report engine problems or try to restart his engine. Meanwhile, passengers who sat idle for about 10 minutes said they were not instructed to don life vests until moments before the crash, the report said.

Lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi represents the families of the Hungarian students, 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner, in wrongful death lawsuits filed against the tour operator, the city and others.

He considers the amphibious vessels unsafe so long as they have cloth canopies, which he believes trap victims inside if the boat capsizes, or venture into the shipping channel.

"They're still death traps. They're just death traps going out on a shorter route," Mongeluzzi told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Ride the Ducks, based in Norcross, Ga., has shortened the original 30-minute water segment of the tour to 10 minutes, pledged to keep a rescue boat nearby and enhanced its employee training. The duck boats will spend an hour on land during the tours.

The company tried to move its operations across town to the quieter Schuylkill River, but the city rejected the plan amid concerns the tours would interfere with walking and biking trails along the river.

"We have always adhered to a rigid set of safety standards that meet or exceed (Coast Guard) regulations. We have taken further measures to enhance these safety guidelines," company President Chris Herschend said.