Mate Pleads Guilty in 2010 Duck Boat Accident

Matthew Devlin was charged with the equivalent of involuntary manslaughter after a barge his tugboat was towing ran over the duck boat in the Delaware River, sinking it and killing two Hungarian tourists. He was distracted while using a cell phone and laptop, NTSB concluded.

Matthew Devlin, former first mate of the tugboat M/V Caribbean Sea, pleaded guilty Aug. 1 in a Philadelphia federal court to one count of misconduct of a ship operator causing death in connection with a July 2010 accident on the Delaware River. He was charged with the equivalent of involuntary manslaughter after a barge the tugboat was towing ran over a duck boat, sinking it and killing two Hungarian tourists. Devlin was distracted while using a cell phone and laptop for an extended period of time to attend to a family emergency, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded.

The board in June 2011 laid most of the blame for the accident on Devlin's actions, but it also found that actions by the duck boat's operator, a tourism company named Ride the Ducks International, LLC, contributed. The board's investigation showed that maintenance personnel from Ride The Ducks did not ensure that the surge tank pressure cap was securely in place before returning the vehicle to passenger service, which allowed the engine to overheat and caused the duck boat's master to stop it and anchor in an active channel. NTSB investigators said Ride The Ducks had written procedures for safe operational practices and emergency situations, but the master did not take all actions appropriate to address the risk of anchoring in an active navigation channel.

Devlin was not in the tugboat's upper wheel house as expected, but was navigating from its lower wheel house, where visibility of the channel ahead was limited, NTSB said. "This is yet another example of the deadliness of distractions," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman in June 2011 when the conclusions were announced. "Distraction is a safety concern across all modes of transportation. Regardless of the reason, it's not okay to multi-task while operating a vehicle -- whether it's calling, texting, or surfing the web."

Sentencing guidelines called for imprisonment of 37 to 46 months in this case, the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania announced July 14, but the Philadelphia Inquirer's Miriam Hill reported Aug. 1 that Devlin's lawyer, Frank DeSimone, said he would ask the court to forgo jail time for Devlin because of the circumstances of the accident. Her article said Devlin was concerned about his five-year-old son, who had experienced oxygen deprivation during eye surgery, and moved to the lower wheelhouse to access a computer to research his son's problem. He was talking to family members on his cell phone as the tug and barge approached the duck boat, she reported, adding that his cell phone use violated the corporate policy of his employer, K-Sea Transportation.

The accident occurred at about 2:37 p.m. The 250-foot-long sludge barge was empty and was being towed alongside the 78.9-foot Caribbean Sea, according to NTSB. The board said the duck boat sank in approximately 55 feet of water. There were 35 passengers and two crew members aboard it; along with the two passengers who drowned, there were 26 passengers and one crew member with minor injuries, according to the board's account.

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