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Duck boat passenger: Barge collision 'surreal'

Rescuers assist passengers that were aboard a sightseeing

Rescuers assist passengers that were aboard a sightseeing boat that was knocked over by an oncoming barge in the Delaware River, Wednesday, in Philadelphia. (July 7, 2010) Photo Credit: CBS3/KWY-TV

PHILADELPHIA - A survivor of the collision between a barge and a duck boat in the Delaware River that dumped dozens of tourists into the water, leaving two Hungarian language students missing, called the   experience “harrowing” and “surreal” Thursday.

Hope faded for finding the two passengers alive Thursday; officials said they were a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old man. A search for them continued, but visibility in the 50-foot-deep water was too low to send divers in.

The boat had no history of mechanical problems before it caught fire, said Chris Herschen, president of Ride the Ducks, the Norcross, Ga.-based company that owns it. The captain appears to have followed all proper procedures during the emergency, he said at a news conference.

It started out as just an inconvenience when smoke started to roll out of the boat’s engine as it entered the water, Sandy Cohen, 67, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday from her home in Durham, N.C.

The tour guide said a tug boat would be on its way to carry passengers back to shore, she recalled. She was on the phone   with her husband to let him know she’d be late, but the call ended abruptly as other passengers screamed.

“Someone said, ’Oh my God, there’s a barge coming, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping,”’ she said.

She grabbed for a lifejacket from a hook above her seat as the boat was struck and started to sink. She was quickly underwater, grabbing the jacket with one hand as her feet tangled up with those of others.

When she surfaced, she said, she realized one of the Hungarian teenagers on the boat was also hanging onto the same flotation device.

“I just told her, ’Don’t let go,’ and made sure we both stayed calm,” she said.

They were rescued five to 10 minutes later.

While crews searched for the missing, the tour company, Norcross, Ga.-based Ride the Ducks, said Thursday that it was suspending operations nationwide, a day after it suspended its Philadelphia tours. It also operates tours in San Francisco, Atlanta, Newport, Ky., and Branson, Mo. A Ride the Ducks operation in Seattle is independently owned and remained open for business Thursday.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with our Philadelphia tour guests, crew members and their families,” the company said in a statement. “We are attending to their needs first. In the interim, we have voluntarily suspended our Ride The Ducks operations nationwide.”

Visibility at the bottom of the murky Delaware River was nil, said Philadelphia police Lt. Andrew Napoli, speaking of his earlier dives.

“The vehicle is laying upright on its wheels,” he said.

“There could be bodies inside, we’re not sure. ... With the currents being what they are, if it went down with bodies inside, the bodies could very well have been washed out of the vessel.”

The 37 people aboard the six-wheeled duck boat were tossed overboard when the tugboat-pushed barge hit it after it had been adrift for a few minutes, police said. Most were plucked from the river by other vessels in a frantic rescue operation that happened in full view of Penn’s Landing, just south of the massive Ben Franklin Bridge connecting Philadelphia to New Jersey.

The duck boat, which can travel seamlessly on land and water, had driven into the river Wednesday afternoon and suffered a mechanical problem and the small fire, officials said. It was struck about 10 minutes later.

Ten people were taken to a hospital; two declined treatment, and eight were treated and released, Hahnemann University Hospital spokeswoman Coleen Cannon said.

The

National Transportation Safety Board

said it planned to try to obtain any radio recordings, any possible mayday calls, photographs from witnesses or people aboard and other evidence  as its investigators remain in

Philadelphia

over the next several days.

“I whirled around as the barge began to run over the duck boat,” said Larry Waxmunski, a guard for the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. “After the barge hit it — it almost looked like slow motion — the duck boat began to turn over.” “Fortunately, you began to see the life vests popping up almost immediately,” Waxmunski said. He then saw police boats beginning to pluck the tourists out of the water.

Television footage showed at least five people being pulled from the water wearing life vests in an area of the river near the Old City neighborhood, popular with tourists.

Helicopter footage showed people in life vests being helped from boats on to a dock and at least one person on a gurney.

Terri Ronna, 45, of Oakland, N.J., said she was on a ferry going from Camden, N.J., across the river to Philadelphia when the captain announced that there was someone overboard from another ship and that they were going to rescue him.

“We were not even halfway over when they said there was somebody overboard and we were going to get them,” Ronna said.

“There were people all over; we could see all these orange life vests.” At a waterfront news conference, Mayor Michael Nutter said authorities were trying to figure out exactly what happened.

“This is a very serious situation, and we are going to do everything we can to get to the bottom of it,” he said.

Hahnemann University Hospital spokeswoman Coleen Cannon said 10 people were taken there, but two refused treatment. The other eight, including two teens, two adults and three adults, were released Wednesday night. The American Red Cross said members of a Hungarian church group were among the passengers aboard the capsized boat, but their names were not released.

One crew member from the duck boat was rescued by the ferry that the Delaware River Port Authority was operating on its scheduled route between Philadelphia and Camden, authority spokesman Ed Kasuba said.

Officials said the barge was owned by the city and being directed by a tugboat owned by K-Sea Transportation Partners of East Brunswick, N.J.

The city Water Department uses the barge to transport sludge from a sewage plant in northeast Philadelphia to a recycling plant down river, said Maura Kennedy, a Nutter spokeswoman. The city has a contract with K-Sea, which operates the tugboat that pulled the unmanned and unpowered barge.

The duck boat was operated by Ride the Ducks, which also operates tours in San Francisco, Seattle, Stone Mountain, Ga., Newport, R.I., and Branson, Mo.

Ride the Ducks has been in Philadelphia since 2003. Passengers board the duck boats at the Independence Mall and are driven on a tour of Old City. Afterward they ride into the Delaware River from a ramp south of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

The sites seen along the 70-minute voyage include Penn’s Landing, Adventure Aquarium across the river in Camden, the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin’s gravesite. About 25 minutes of the journey are spent on the river and, according to its website, the top speed is around 7 mph.

Coast Guard spokesman Thomas Peck said neither craft was in a wrong lane.

A duck boat sank at Hot Springs, Ark., on May 1, 1999, killing 13 of the 21 people aboard after its bilge pump failed. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed inadequate maintenance and recommended that duck boats have backup flotation devices.

In June 2002, four people were killed when an amphibious tour boat, the Lady Duck, sank in the Ottawa River near Canada’s Parliament.

Some of the vehicles are amphibious military personnel carriers dating back to World War II that have been restored and reconditioned for peacetime use. Known by their original military acronym as DUKWs, they were first introduced in the tourism market in 1946 in the Wisconsin Dells, where about 120 of the vessels now operate.

As of 2000, there were more than 250 refurbished amphibious vehicles in service nationwide, according to the NTSB. The federal agency is investigating the crash.

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