WASHINGTON -- A tugboat officer, focused on his cellphone and laptop, allowed his tug to push a 250-foot barge into a stranded tourist vessel on the Delaware River in July, killing two people and highlighting a growing problem with distracted operators on land, sea, and air, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
"This accident is not just about one individual's actions, but about a new and highly troubling societal norm," Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said as the safety board conducted its final hearing on the crash.
"When people's lives are in your hands, whether you're piloting a tug, conducting a train, flying a 757, or even driving home this evening, you take responsibility by giving your full attention to the safety-critical task at hand," Hersman said. "There is simply no conversation or action that is important enough to risk your life or the lives of others."
The board found the probable cause of the accident was the frequent use of a cellphone and computer by the tugboat's first mate, Matt Devlin, who was responsible for guiding the vessel. He was also faulted for navigating from the lower wheelhouse, where visibility was reduced.
The first mate's attention to a family medical crisis caused him to overlook the duck boat stranded in the river, investigators found.
A deckhand on the duck also was distracted because he was texting on his cellphone in the minutes before the accident, investigators said.
Both men were breaking their companies' rules against such use of electronic devices.
Too many other accidents recently investigated by the NTSB have similarly been caused by distracted operators, Hersman said.
"We must find a way to change the culture of distraction we see across transportation because, frankly, the distractions are only going to get worse," she said.
Board member Robert Sumwalt said the use of cellphones and other electronic devices is "becoming the new DUI."
"We're going to have to make changes in society," Sumwalt said, "just as we did with drinking and driving and seat belts."
The July 7 collision of the barge and the tourist boat killed two Hungarian tourists, Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20.
Devlin was the first mate of the tug Caribbean Sea, which was pushing a 250-foot sludge barge on the Delaware. He was responsible for watching out for river traffic in front of the barge.
The five-member safety board convened Tuesday morning to adopt the findings, probable cause and safety recommendations from the final report presented to the board by NTSB investigators at the hearing.
Devlin initially told his bosses and the Coast Guard after the accident that he had been very concerned about his 6-year-old son, who had nearly died during relatively routine surgery. Devlin refused to talk to investigators after those initial interviews.
Investigators said Tuesday that Devlin "failed to perform the fundamental tasks to maintain a proper lookout." They said he apparently left the tugboat's upper wheelhouse, where visibility was much better, to go to a lower vantage point as he continued to use his cellphone and the company laptop.
Devlin made 15 calls and received six between noon and the 2:37 p.m. crash, investigators said. He also used the computer to look up medical information, the investigators said.
The master of the duck tried four times to alert the tug on two radio frequencies, without success, investigators said. He was unable to sound the horn because the boat's ignition was off, but investigators said it was unlikely the tug operator could have heard the smaller vessel's horn anyway.
The duck was anchored in the shipping channel after being shut down because the vessel's operator smelled smoke and feared an onboard fire.
Investigators said Tuesday that there was no indication of a fire on the duck. They found a missing cap from a coolant tank and surmised that coolant escaped, causing the engine to overheat and emit steam. That prompted the master, Gary Fox, to shut the craft down.
That response was acceptable, but Fox then failed to notify the Coast Guard or send a general emergency radio warning to other vessels. And his deckhand was texting on a personal cellphone instead of watching for oncoming vessels, investigators said.
The duck's master should have ordered passengers to don life jackets as soon as the boat was dead in the water, but investigators could not say the tourists would have survived if they had been wearing life jackets.
Board member Sumwalt said a 2003 change in Coast Guard rules, meant to improve safety for duck operations, may have actually made them more dangerous.
The Coast Guard changed its rules to require ducks to stay within 300 feet of the Philadelphia shore, instead of 1,000 feet. Sumwalt said that change kept the ducks from moving to the relative safety of the Camden shore; instead, they had to stay in the shipping channel. NTSB investigators said they had no indications that the rule change was a factor in the accident.
Chris Herschend, president of Ride the Ducks, said the NTSB findings affirmed that the primary cause of the accident was the failure of the tug's first mate to keep a lookout. He also said the company would take the findings and evaluate whether it needed to make more changes in addition to those in its new operating plan.
K-Sea Transportation, owner of the tug, said it was "reviewing the board's findings and recommendations, and may submit a response to be included in the official record." The company declined to comment further, citing pending litigation.
Robert Mongeluzzi, who is representing the families of Prem and Schwendtner and four passengers who survived, said the NTSB report showed negligence by K-Sea and Ride the Ducks.
"The NTSB confirmed what we have suspected all along: Two people died because of the colossal failures of two companies," Mongeluzzi said, adding that vessel operators should take away employees' cellphones before they get onto the water.
Frank DeSimone, who is representing Devlin, did not return a call seeking comment.
Jon Maiorine, chief of the prevention department for the Coast Guard, said he would wait for the final NTSB report before evaluating whether the 300-foot limit for ducks might have increased risk. The Coast Guard is completing its own investigation.