PHILADELPHIA – A crew member refusing to talk to federal investigators about a fatal duck boat crash in Philadelphia was piloting the tugboat pushing a barge that slammed into the duck boat, a Coast Guard official said Monday.
The mate exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to meet with investigators over the weekend, according to the National Transportation and Safety Board.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Todd Gatlin confirmed to The Associated Press that the mate was on duty as the tug pushed a 250-foot barge up the Delaware River. The crew of the duck boat told the NTSB that its radio calls to the tug "received no response," although other boat operators nearby reported hearing them.
The collision last week sank the tourist vessel, dumping 37 people overboard and killing two young Hungarians.
The tug, The Caribbean Sea, had been moved to Philadelphia on June 24, Gatlin said. It previously had been in New York Harbor, according to Joseph Dady, a national tug safety advocate who once piloted the vessel.
The tug's crew consisted of a captain, the mate, an engineer and two deckhands, the NTSB said.
"The mate was on duty ... and the captain was off," Gatlin told the AP.
By law, either the captain or mate must be at the wheel at all times, said Dady, president of the National Mariners Association and a member of the Coast Guard's Towing Safety Advisory Commission.
An 18-year-old trainee had been at the wheel of the duck boat when it entered the water, but the captain took over when the engine appeared to smoke, a passenger said Monday. The pair cut the engine, dropped anchor and were waiting calmly for help for several minutes when they saw the hulking barge bear down on them.
"Our younger fellow was out there flailing and calling, and obviously nobody saw him. I came to find out that nobody was on deck on the barge," passenger Sandy Cohen said Monday from her home in Durham, N.C. "And then they couldn't reach them by radio."
The tug's owner, K-Sea Transportation Partners of East Brunswick, N.J., declined to identify the mate or describe the crew's experience level. Nor would the company say if there was a lookout on the barge, which Dady said is required if the pilot's view from the wheelhouse is significantly obstructed.
K-Sea has provided legal counsel to the five-person crew, but a spokesman could not immediately name the mate's lawyer. The company said it was cooperating fully with the probe.
"If an individual chooses to take the Fifth Amendment, that's fully their right," spokesman Darrell Wilson said.
The captain submitted to an NTSB interview, but NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway would not disclose what he said.
Typically, tug captains and mates rotate six-hour shifts, with one person on duty and the other on break, Dady said. The deckhands also rotate shifts, and the NTSB said one was asleep at the time.
"It's 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror," Dady said of a tug captain's job.
The amphibious duck boats are a popular way for tourists to see the sights of Philadelphia from both land and water. Two Hungarians visiting the city as part of a language program, 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner, were missing for two days before their bodies were found.
Ten passengers suffered minor injuries.
The tug was pushing a city-owned barge that carries sludge a few miles downriver to a wastewater treatment plant. The barge — empty and riding high on the sea — was making the return trip upriver when it struck the tourist boat about 150 feet from the shoreline, where commercial, tourist and pleasure craft share space in the Delaware River's deep shipping channel.
According to Dady, Coast Guard rules mandate that a pilot make 11 trips on a given waterway before taking the helm. Although the Caribbean Sea had been moved to the Delaware River just weeks earlier, K-Sea may have hired a local crew, Gatlin said.
Dady, who operated The Caribbean Sea decades ago when it bore a different name, said the vessel has good maneuverability. He believes the pilot could have changed course in about a minute and come to a full stop in about three minutes, if he knew of the looming peril.
"If there was a proper lookout posted — I'm not saying there was or there wasn't — I would find it hard to believe that he wouldn't have seen that duck boat in time to alert the captain or mate and divert course and prevent the collision," he said.
However, if the boat were drifting, a pilot might have thought it was moving out of the barge's path.
"If that vessel was adrift, it might have given the guy the illusion that he was under way and he was going to cross the bow safely," he said.