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Families of Philadelphia 'duck boat' victims get $15M settlement

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
A tugboat towing a barge crashed into a sightseeing
A tugboat towing a barge crashed into a sightseeing "duck boat" on the Delaware River in July 2010, killing two tourists.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The families of two Hungarian students who died will split $15 million
  • The disabled "Ride the Ducks" tour boat was struck by a barge on July 7, 2010
  • Survivors of crash receive $2 million in settlement for $17M total
  • Pilot of the tugboat is serving prison time for causing the accident

Philadelphia (CNN) -- The operators of two vessels involved in the "duck boat" accident on the Delaware River two summers ago have reached a $17 million settlement with the victims and the families of the two Hungarian students who died that day.

The families of the Dora Schwendter and Szabolcs Prem will split $15 million, and nearly 20 other victims who involved in the accident will split $2 million.

Schwendter, 16, and Prem, 20, died on July 7, 2010, when a sludge barge towed by a tugboat plowed into the disabled, 33-foot "Ride the Ducks" tour boat they were riding on the Delaware River, plunging the amphibious vessel and its 35 passengers and two crew members underwater.

Their families filed wrongful death lawsuits against K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, New Jersey, which operated the tugboat guiding the barge along the river, and Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Georgia, which operated the tour boat.

Ride the Ducks issued a statement saying it is "glad to bring closure to this sad chapter" and expressing sympathy, noting that "as parents ourselves, we are sorry for what they have experienced."

On the second day of a federal trial that began Monday, U.S. District Judge Thomas O'Neill, who presided in the nonjury trial, halted the proceedings and told the parties in the case to work out a settlement. The parties negotiated from noon Tuesday to late Wednesday afternoon.

It was not disclosed how the payment of the settlement would be divided by the two companies.

A lawyer representing the families of the two victims said the decision was a wake-up call for the transportation industry.

2010 duck boat crash video released

"To lose an only child is a parent's worst nightmare," said Robert Mongeluzzi from Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky law firm. "They still remain in search of closure, but they wanted us to find out what happened and make sure it didn't happen again."

During his opening statement, Mongeluzzi played a video clip of the accident that showed Schwendtner throwing a life preserver to Kyle Burkhardt, the duck boat¹s first mate.

"Sixteen-year-old Dora Schwendtner throws her life preserver to Kyle Burkhard to save his life. And, because of the defendants' failures, she lost hers," Mongeluzzi said.

In testimony Tuesday, Kevin Grace of Waterloo, Illinois, who was aboard the duck boat with his 9-year-old daughter when it was struck, described the chaos of that day as "the most horrific thing" he had ever witnessed.

"The initial impact came with loud screams and cries from the rest of the people on the boat," Grace said. "As I got near the window, the boat turned and pitched, and the river rose up and just swallowed us."

He added that he was unable to secure a life jacket on himself and only managed to get one over his daughter's head.

"The only thing I could do was reach up and grab a handful of hair and just hold on," he said. "Under no circumstances was I going to let go. Her lifeline was my hand on her hair."

"It was like being a washing machine with a bunch of strange objects, shoes and clothes and people people flailing underwater," he said.

The distracted tugboat pilot who crashed the barge into the sightseeing craft is serving time in federal prison for his criminal conduct associated with his role in the accident, federal prosecutors said.

Matthew R. Devlin, 35, of Catskill, New York, pleaded guilty on August 1, 2011, to one count of misconduct of a ship operator causing death, and was sentenced to a year and a day. In addition to the prison time, he also will spend three years on supervised release.

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 tug, 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.

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.

CNN's Michael Teng contributed to this report.

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