Tug pilot faces prison for fatal Pa. boat crash

A tug pilot talking on a cellphone as he steered a huge barge into a small tour boat, killing two Hungarian students, faces more than three years in prison Tuesday at his federal sentencing.

Matthew R. Devlin, 35, of Catskill, N.Y., was consumed by a family emergency and spent most of the hour before the crash on a cellphone and laptop, investigators found. He is seeking probation or house arrest after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the July 7, 2010 duck boat crash.

Prosecutors accept that Devlin was distraught by news his young son had suffered serious complications during eye surgery. However, he should have had the captain resting nearby take the wheel, they said in a sentencing memo filed last week.

"Devlin's misconduct was particularly reckless and prolonged, with terrible results," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer wrote.

Devlin's employer, K-Sea Transportation Partners, banned pilots from using personal cellphones without permission. Devlin had a history of violating the rule, although he was otherwise a good seaman who had risen from deckhand to first mate, prosecutors said.

When he learned his son had gone without oxygen during surgery, he turned down the marine radio to make a series of phone calls and research the issue on the laptop. He therefore missed the mayday calls to his vessel from the duck boat captain, who had anchored in the busy shipping channel when his engine started smoking on the 103-degree day.

Devlin rammed a 250-foot city barge into the 33-foot duck boat, sending its 35 people onboard into the Delaware River. Twenty-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner drowned. They were part of a group of Hungarians visiting the U.S. through a church exchange.

Their parents will not be in court Tuesday, but prosecutors plan to play a four-minute videotape of their victim impact statements. Each family lost their only child.

"We are older now and cannot have more children of our own. We lead very simple lives and Dora and Szabolcs were our entire worlds," the parents wrote in a statement to the court.

The families have filed suit against K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, N.J., Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Ga., the city of Philadelphia and others.

The National Transportation and Safety Board held a public hearing on the crash in June. NTSB officials fear the nation risks a surge in deadly crashes unless driving while distracted — by talking, texting or searching the Internet — becomes taboo.

Devlin has permanently surrendered his pilot's license, but hopes to remain free so he can support his wife and two young children through other jobs. His wife, Corrine D. Devlin, blames herself for calling him about the son's emergency, defense lawyer Frank DeSimone wrote in his sentencing memo.

"There are many victims in this matter, the parents of the young people who were killed, but also the Devlin family," DeSimone wrote.