Tugboat pilot gets year in jail for fatal 'duck boat' accident

The tugboat towing a barge crashed into the sightseeing "duck boat" on the Delaware River in July 2010, killing two tourists.

Story highlights

  • Matthew R. Devlin, 35, is sentenced to a year and a day, plus probation
  • Two died when a barge towed by Devlin's tugboat hit their small tour craft
  • Tearful Devlin and wife said they were talking about their sick son on cell phone
  • NTSB: Devlin made or received 21 cell phone calls, surfed the web on a laptop
The distracted tugboat pilot who crashed a barge into a sightseeing "duck boat," killing two tourists, was sentenced Tuesday to a year and a day in prison for his role in the incident, federal prosecutors said.
In addition to the prison time, Matthew R. Devlin, 35, of Catskill, New York, will also receive three years of supervised release.
Two Hungarian student tourists aboard the sightseeing boat -- Dora Schwendter, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20 -- died when a 250-foot sludge barge towed by the tugboat overran the disabled 33-foot "Ride the Ducks" tour boat on the Delaware River, plunging the amphibious vessel and its 35 passengers and two crew members underwater.
Devlin pleaded guilty on August 1 to one count of misconduct of a ship operator causing death, according to the U.S. attorney for eastern Pennsylvania.
Devlin admitted that he was distracted by his cell phone and laptop for an extended period of time before the collision, that he piloted the Caribbean Sea from its lower wheelhouse where he had significantly reduced visibility and that he did not maintain a proper lookout or comply with other essential rules of seamanship, according to federal prosecutors.
The sentence was handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Legrome D. Davis. Devlin is scheduled to report to prison on January 5, 2012. He also surrendered his Coast Guard-issued license as a mate, according to federal prosecutors.
Based on federal sentencing guidelines, Devlin could have received up to four years in prison.
Devlin and his tearful wife, Corinne, took the stand Tuesday, and asked the judge for leniency, according to CNN affiliate KYW.
"You're here to punish Matthew, but Matthew is punishing himself every day. He's so sorry, and we are sorry," she said. "I am begging for mercy for my husband ... Our children are so little," KYW reports.
Matthew Devlin cried intermittently during his wife's testimony and broke down at times during the hour he spent on the stand, KYW reports.
A lawyer representing the families of the two victims said Devlin "did the right thing" in court.
"He accepted responsibility and the punishment. He apologized, which was very important to the families," said said attorney Andrew Duffy, from Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky law firm.
"He did the right thing but the families are absolutely devastated. Each family lost their only child. Matt Devlin will be away from his family for one year, but the Hungarian families will be away from their children forever," Duffy added.
Duffy's law firm is currently in litigation with vessel operators K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, New Jersey, and Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Georgia, which are asking the federal government to limit their liability in the incident, he said.
The morning of the accident, on July 7, 2010, Devlin's 6-year-old son was undergoing routine eye surgery when he experienced complications including a laryngospasm -- which led to partial oxygen deprivation for eight minutes. Devlin's wife said she panicked and called her husband, who was at the controls of the tug at the time, according to KYW.
According to National Transportation Safety Board findings, tugboat pilot Devlin made and received 21 cell phone calls in addition to surfing the web using a company laptop during his more than two hours at the wheel.
The NTSB released its final report on June 21.
The incident was "another tragic example of the deadliness of distraction," Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB, said after the final report showed several people involved were on cell phones or computers.
After the accident, Devlin initially told his superiors and the Coast Guard that he was dealing with a serious family medical emergency involving his son.
The sightseeing "duck boat" was anchored in the shipping channel after being shut down because the boat's operator saw smoke and feared an onboard fire.
Lawyers who represented the families of the two victims released a statement in July saying the families "are gratified that federal prosecutors have acted to hold one of the responsible parties accountable in this tragedy that should have been avoided."