PHILADELPHIA – A tug pilot involved in a crash between a barge and a tour boat that killed two Hungarian students last summer was charged Thursday with involuntary manslaughter and has agreed to plead guilty, federal prosecutors said.
The tug pilot, Matt Devlin of Catskill, N.Y., was repeatedly on his cell phone dealing with a family emergency as he steered the huge barge toward the stalled duck boat, federal investigators have found.
In about 2 1/2 hours at the wheel, Devlin made and received 21 cellphone calls and also surfed the Internet on a laptop owned by his employer, K-Sea Transportation Partners, they found.
Devlin also moved from an upper to a lower wheelhouse on the tug to do so, obscuring his ability to see the stalled 33-foot duck boat. Investigators believe the lower wheelhouse offered him more privacy and less noise as he talked on the phone and did research on a company laptop -- both violations of company policy.
The July 7, 2010, crash also sent 35 others aboard the duck boat tumbling into the busy shipping channel.
Devlin's lawyer, Frank DeSimone, told The Associated Press he wouldn't comment until the charges were announced Thursday afternoon.
The charges come just weeks after the National Transportation and Safety Board issued its findings on the crash.
At a public hearing, NTSB officials stressed that the nation risks a surge in deadly accidents unless it makes distracted driving -- talking, texting and surfing the Internet while operating cars, boats and trains -- as taboo as drunken driving.
On the day of the accident, Devlin, 35, had learned that his young son had suffered a life-threatening reaction to anesthesia during routine eye surgery. The son has since recovered.
He was on his cellphone for 10 of the 12 minutes before the crash, and could not see the stalled duck boat for the final nine minutes because it was in his blind spot.
Duck boat Capt. Gary Fox, 59, of Turnersville, N.J., had turned off his engine because he noticed smoke and feared the engine was on fire. Investigators found there was no fire, but that mechanics who inspected the vessel before the tour failed to see that a pressure cap was not sealed properly, causing coolant to leak and the engine to overheat.
The NTSB faulted Fox for failing to have passengers don life jackets after he dropped anchor, failing to teach them earlier how they should be worn, and failing to call the Coast Guard directly.
Fox's distress calls to Devlin, meanwhile, went unanswered.
Agency investigators found that both companies -- K-Sea of East Brunswick, N.J., and Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Ga. -- had strong safety cultures, but that their training was not always followed.
Drug and alcohol tests on both crews in the duck boat crash were negative.
The families of the Hungarians who drowned, 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem, have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the city, the operators of both vessels and others.
Ride the Ducks resumed its operations on the Delaware River this spring.
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