DUKW Tour Vehicle Sinks: Two Dead

Struck by empty barge being pushed by tugboat

July 14, 2010

An empty, unmanned and unmotorized barge being pushed by a tugboat on the Delaware River, struck and sank a WWII DUKW used by as a tourist attraction in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 7, 2010. The Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle, occupied by 35 passengers and two crew members, rolled over and sank in 40 feet of water.

Philadelphia police say the boat had just entered the water south of the Ben Frankin Bridge and was to make a routine loop of the Delaware River when it suffered a small engine fire, rendering the boat helpless. It dropped anchor and was awaiting assistance. Ten minutes later, a barge used to transport sludge pulled by a private tugboat struck the DUKW. It is unclear if the duck boat sent out a distress signal. The Coast Guard says it did receive a distress signal around the time of the collision, but it is not clear if the signal came from the duck boat or some other vessel.

Eyewitteness both in boats and on a shore initiated a frantic rescue effort . The DUKW had experienced mechanical problems and was disabled without power. All occupants on the DUKW were rescued from the river, except for two young tourists from Hungary. Rescuers located the sunk vehicle in 40 to 50 feet of water by using divers and SONAR. The bodies of 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner were recovered. Schwendtner and Prem were among 13 Hungarian students, two Hungarian teachers, four U.S. students and three U.S. teachers on a tour hosted by Marshallton United Methodist Church in suburban Philadelphia.

Ride the Ducks is a Georgia corporation that has about 90 vessels in several cities. It has operated in Philadelphia since 2003, where it currently operates 15 vehicles. In a brief press conference around 9:00 p.m., the ‘Ride the Ducks’ company gave a statement concerning the accident. “I’d like to share with all of you that ‘Ride the Ducks’ extends our heartfelt feelings to the families of the guests who were on our vehicle today. It is their comfort and wellbeing that is our first priority. We will continue to work with the authorities on the recovery effort,” spokesperson for Ride the Ducks, Sharla Feldscher, said.

The barge involved was city-owned and was being pushed upriver by a private tug company, K-Sea Transportation Partner LLC. K-Sea is headquartered in East Brunswick, NJ. The company said that the tug’s crew of five all had proper Coast Guard licenses. The Philadelphia Water Department uses the barge to transport sludge from a sewage plant in northeast Philadelphia to a recycling plant down river.

The DUKWs are subject to a variety of local, state and federal laws and regulations and are regulated as a business operation by the City of Philadelphia. They are subject to the motor vehicle laws of Pennsylvania while on streets and highways. Afloat, the Coast Guard regulates the DUKWS, mostly by conducting inspections for safety compliance.

This tragedy will be investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. The boat was lifted from the water about 100 yards from shore by a crane. The DUKW will be first taken first to the Coast Guard station in Philadelphia and then moved to another secure location for inspection to determine the cause of the engine fire and failure. National Transportation Safety Board Investigators immediately began to reconstruct what went wrong. They expected to spend more than a week working in Philadelphia before heading back to Washington, D.C., to continue their investigation.

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