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'Duck boat' crash: Victim tried to help deckhand

May 07, 2012|By Rene Lynch

A 16-year-old Hungarian girl's final moments were captured on video and shown to a Philadelphia courtroom Monday: Dora Schwendtner can be seen selflessly tossing a life jacket to a deckhand who went overboard, seemingly unaware of the danger she faced.

The teenager and a fellow Hungarian tourist, Szabolcs Prem, 20, were killed in July 2010 during what was supposed to be a sightseeing tour of the Delaware River. Instead, the outing ended in tragedy when a barge barreled down on the lightweight watercraft known as a "duck boat," which had stalled in the water. The collision sent dozens of passengers and crew members into the water.

The families of the victims are suing tug operator K-Sea Transportation and duck boat operator Ride the Ducks, claiming that vague safety policies and shoddy training procedures lead to the crash, the Associated Press reported. The two entities deny wrongdoing and blame each other for the deaths.

On that day, one tragedy led to another.

At the time of the crash, the barge pilot had walked away from his command post after receiving a frantic phone call from his wife. Their 5-year-old son had suffered serious complications when the boy's oxygen was mistakenly restricted during what was supposed to be a routine eye surgery.

The pilot, Matthew Devlin, would spend nearly an hour talking on his cellphone and tapping into a personal computer to do medical research below deck. Perhaps most critically of all, he turned down a marine radio so he could focus, but that left him unable to hear the Mayday alerts. He has since been sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter, the Associated Press reported.

The news service said the Philadelphia courtroom where the case is being heard was crowded with onlookers as attorney Robert Mongeluzzi recalled the last moments of Schwendtner's life.

“Dora throws her life preserver to Kyle Burkhardt to save his life … and she loses her own,” Mongeluzzi told the court.

The first witness in the trial explained that the mood was jovial aboard the duck boat even after it stalled. Riders were enjoying the scenery, waiting for a tow, when the barge began bearing down on them. Despite the impending danger, the crew never alerted the passengers to put on their life jackets, Alysia Petchulat of St. Louis told the court. Nonetheless, she instinctively scrambled to put one on her 9-year-old son.

“We were hit," she said. "It was an awful sound, metal on metal; we rolled, we were in the water,” she said.

Petchulat said she feared she would die. “The water was black, you couldn't see anything,” she said. “You could feel people underneath you trying to get up" to the surface.

Schwendtner's father, Peter, who traveled from Hungary to attend the trial, told reporters that he found it impossible to describe his feelings as he watched his daughter's final, selfless act. "Watching the tape of my daughter dying was horrifying," he said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Just seconds before impact, deckhand Burkhardt can be seen in the video diving into the water while passengers remain in harm's way. Schwendtner can then be seen tossing him the life preserver.

“This is the type of person she was,” Peter Schwendtner said. 

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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