NTSB: Tugboat Mate on Cell Phone During Fatal Crash with Duck Boat

According to the NTSB report, the tugboat mate made or received 21 calls during the 2 hours leading up to the July 7 accident.

The crew member responsible for navigating a tugboat on the Delaware River last summer was on his cell phone when the vessel he was towing crashed into a duck boat carrying tourists, two of whom died in the accident.

According to a report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board, the tugboat mate made or received 21 calls during the 2 hours leading up to the July 7 accident. The mate told a tugboat company lawyer that he had learned that day of a life-threatening medical emergency involving his son.

The accident occurred shortly after the duck boat had dropped anchor to deal with a mechanical problem that caused smoke to pour out of the engine. Around 2:37 p.m., a 250-foot-long empty sludge barge that was being towed by the tugboat collided with the duck boat, causing it to sink in 55 feet of water. On board the duck boat were 35 passengers and two crewmembers.

NTSB said audio recordings showed the duck boat captain had radioed several times to the tugboat, and that other nearby vessels also radioed to warn the towing vessel, which did not respond.

However, the duck boat captain failed to follow company policy requiring him to alert the Coast Guard immediately about any problem with steering, propulsion or passenger injury. He also did not follow emergency procedures that would have had him ordering passengers to put on life jackets once the tour boat was stranded in the water, according to the NTSB report.

A federal criminal investigation is under way. At his lawyer's advice, the mate, an employee of K-Sea Transportation, has declined to cooperate with NTSB investigators, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. The NTSB report does not analyze what caused the crash.

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