Video of crash opens civil duck boat case in Philadelphia

May 7, 2012 2:49:17 PM PDT
The lawyer for the family of the victims of the duck boat disaster said the teen can be seen throwing her life preserver to the employee who had just jumped ship.

That claim, and recently released video of the incident, were part of the opening statement on Monday morning as the civil trial in this case got underway.

The families of 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner have filed wrongful death lawsuits against K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, N.J., which operated a tugboat guiding a barge upriver; Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Ga., which operated the tour boat that was hit by the barge; the city of Philadelphia, which owned the barge; and others.

That barge slammed into the sightseeing boat from Ride the Ducks in July, 2010, dumping the passengers into the water. Prem and Schwendter, Hungarian students who were part of a group visiting the U.S. through a church exchange program, drowned.

Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, the lawyer representing the families, told the judge - and showed the video - of duck boat mate Kyle Burkhardt abandoning the crippled craft as the barge approaches. It was Schwendtner who can be seen tossing her life preserver to Burkhardt, who was in the water.

Moments later the barge slams into the duck boat.

"It's unfortunate that the defendants did nothing to save them, but she tried to save them," said Mongeluzzi.

The parents of the victims came from Hungary to testify and watch the proceedings. Dora's father said the life preserver incident shows the quality of his daughter's character.

"Watching the videos and the tapes of my daughter dying was horrible. I really don't have the words... I really don't know what I'm going to do in the future," Peter Schwendtner said through a translator.

"I just thought that my [child] died here and there was no need for [him] to die here. Not at all," said Mari Prem through a translator.

The lawyers for the families attacked the duck boat company for the mechanical breakdown that left the boat adrift in the river and failing to tell the 30-plus passengers to don their life jackets. They also attacked K-Sea, owners of the tug boat pushing the barge, for not having anyone on deck to see the peril dead ahead.

In their opening statements to Judge Thomas O'Neill, the lawyers for the two companies blamed each other for the catastrophe.

"Watching these billion dollar corporations say 'I'm not at fault, we did nothing wrong, it's not our fault,' is disgusting. It makes my stomach turn," said Peter Ronai, an attorney for the families.

A number of the duck boat survivors are expected to testify and videotaped jailhouse testimony will come from Matt Devlin, the first mate on the tug boat, who has already entered a guilty plea in this case and is serving a prison term.

Devlin was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to the maritime equivalent of an involuntary manslaughter charge. Prosecutors said he was on his cell phone amid a family emergency, moved to a part of the tug that blocked his view of the river and turned down a marine radio, stifling Mayday calls before the collision.