July 14, 2011 — -- A ship's pilot was charged with manslaughter today for allegedly causing a fatal boat collision near Philadelphia on the Delaware River that claimed the lives of two young tourists.
New York resident Matthew Devlin, 35, was using his tugboat to steer a 250-foot barge along the river on July 7, 2010 when the barge collided with a much smaller "duck boat," allegedly because Devlin had "for an extended period of time prior to the collision, [been] distracted by his use of a cell phone and laptop computer," according to charging documents.
The duck boat, a small amphibious watercraft used to conduct tours of the Philadelphia waterfront, was pushed down into the water by the hull of the barge and sank. Two Hungarian passengers on the duck boat, 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem and 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner, were killed.
Thirty-seven passengers were aboard the tourist vessel when it capsized, and in addition to the deaths, 11 were injured. Most passengers jumped from the boat before it sank, though only some had time to grab life jackets. At the time of the collision the duck boat was adrift in the water because its captain had turned off its engine after noticing smoke.
"Those who operate transport vessels on our waterways have a clear duty to ensure that proper sightlines are maintained at all times, and to obey all other rules of seamanship, so that the risks to others on the water are minimized," said U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger. "When that duty is breached and causes death, the Seaman's Manslaughter Statute allows the federal government to seek criminal sanctions against the vessel operator."
Devlin has been offered a plea agreement in which he would likely serve between three to four years in prison and have his Coast Guard-issued license as a mate revoked.
The duck boat was operated by the local outlet of a national chain called Ride the Ducks, which offers sightseeing tours in five cities around the country.