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Tug Pilot Pleading Guilty In Deadly Duck Boat Crash

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The tug boat pilot involved in a crash between a barge and a duck boat that killed two Hungarian students last summer on the Delaware River was charged today with involuntary manslaughter and has agreed to plead guilty, federal prosecutors said.

The tug pilot, Matt Devlin of Catskill, NY, 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 2½ hours at the wheel, Devlin made and received 21 cell phone calls and also surfed the Internet on a laptop owned by his employer, K-Sea Transportation Partners, they found.

Devlin, the first mate and pilot of the tug boat at the time of the accident is being charged with one count of "misconduct of a ship operator causing death."

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 7th, 2010, crash also sent 35 others aboard the duck boat tumbling into the busy shipping channel (see previous story).

Devlin has agreed to plead guilty to one count of "misconduct of a ship operator causing death."   As part of his plea deal, Devlin agreed to the permanent loss of his US Coast Guard-issued license as a mate, and he faces 37 to 46 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

The charges come just weeks after the National Transportation Safety Board issued its findings on the crash (see related story).

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 cell phone 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 captain Gary Fox, 59, of Turnersville, NJ, had turned off his engine that July day 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 US Coast Guard directly.

Fox's distress calls to Devlin, meanwhile, went unanswered (related story).

Agency investigators found that both companies -- K-Sea of East Brunswick, NJ 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 (related story).

(Copyright 2011 by the Associated Press.  All rights reserved.)

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