The senior crew of the duck boat that sank on the Delaware River Wednesday told NTSB officials that everything was in working order when he inspected the boat before the fatal trip.
At a press conference Friday night, NTSB board memebr Robert Sumwalt said the master of the boat, a 58-year-old man with the duck boat company for three seasons, told NTSB he found no irregularities during his routine pre-trip inspection.
But the two marine communication tools on board — an airhorn and a VHF radio — were both unsuccessful at catching the attention of the tug boat pushing the barge that collided with the duck boat.
The airhorn didn’t work, although the master said it did when he checked it before the trip. It’s unclear whether the VHF transmitted the message properly since there was no response.
The master said he tried to hail the tug boat operator on a channel meant for boat-to-boat communication. The Coast Guard does not monitor that station.
The master and deckhand told NTSB that after they turned around to head back to the dock, they noticed smoke coming out of the engine. The master described it as “white” and “acrid” smoke, while the deckhand described the smell as similar to “burning rubber.”
The deckhand checked the engine out. There were no flames, but the master turned off the engine just in case and notified the duck boat dispatcher that they had stopped.
The boat was stopped for five to 10 minutes before the collision with the barge. In that time, another duck boat came by and offered help, but the master or deckhand declined, Sumwalt said.
The master said that when the barge was about 400 yards away, he tried to reach the tug boat operator over the radio and requested that it change course. He said he didn’t receive a response.
It was around that time that either the master or the deckhand told passengers to put on life jackets.
They also interviewed 16 duck boat passengers Friday. Their testimonies were mostly consistent with each others’ accounts and the accounts of the deckhand and master.
“Our investigation at this point is right where it should be. We’ve only been on the ground here for two full days,” Sumwalt said, an answer to the unasked question of why more definitive information couldn’t be made available.
Tomorrow NTSB will interview the five tugboat crew members.
“Our job is to find out what happened. Our goal is to prevent it from ever happening again. It’s a true tragedy of untold proportions,” Sumwalt said.