Tug Pilot Gets Year in Deadly Pa. Duck Boat Crash

A tug pilot distracted by cellphone calls amid a family emergency was sentenced Tuesday to one year and a day in prison for a deadly river crash in Philadelphia that killed two young tourists.

Pilot Matthew Devlin of Catskill, N.Y., was virtually driving blind as he pushed a barge nearly the length of a city block through a busy shipping channel on the Delaware River, prosecutors said.

Devlin spent almost an hour on the cellphone and laptop, and turned off a marine radio, stifling Mayday calls from the duck boat and other nearby vessels before the July 7, 2010 crash.

And he had moved to a lower wheelhouse so he could hear better, even though it sharply reduced his view of the river.

“Goodness gracious; everybody knew this was happening but you,” U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis told Devlin.

A video played in court for the first time shows the 80-yard-long barge inching toward the idled duck boat. Six minutes later, the barge drives right over the duck boat, killing two Hungarian students and sending 35 others aboard into the Delaware River shipping channel.

“There was plenty of time to avoid this accident,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer said.

Devlin, 35, of Catskill, N.Y., had faced up to three years for his involuntary manslaughter plea.

Both sides agreed that a string of incredible events converged before the crash. There was a complication with the supposedly routine surgery. The duck boat overheated on the 103-degree day because someone left a radiator cap off. The captain mistook the steam for an engine fire, and turned off the boat and dropped anchor.

Half of those aboard the duck boat were from Hungary and spoke limited English.

But Davis noted that if Devlin had done just one thing differently, he could have broken that unlucky chain and avoided the crash.

Instead, Devlin failed to go on break after learning his 5-year-old son had been deprived of oxygen during the surgery. He made or received 21 cell phone calls during the next hour and did medical research on the laptop.

Devlin, a married father of two who coaches youth baseball and ropes calf in his spare time, spoke publicly about the crash Tuesday for the first time. His son has since recovered.

He said he awakes each day to images of bodies and orange flotation devices floating in the river. His wife, Corrine, feels responsible for calling him on the job that day.

“There isn’t a morning I don’t wake up with a tremendous pit in my stomach that I was even involved in this accident,” Devlin said. “And for this past year and four months, there hasn’t been one night that we have laid in bed at ease.”

Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16, drowned in the crash. They were part of a group of Hungarians visiting the U.S. through a church exchange.

Their families gave victim-impact statements by way of a video shot in their hometowns that showed mementos of their childhoods.

Prem’s favorite song was Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” his father said. The son hoped to move to the U.S. someday. Schwendtner’s mother showed excited notes on her daughter’s calendar about the upcoming trip to America.

“Two families lost the only child they had, and they’re past child-bearing years,” Davis said. “They send a child off with a school group to come to America and the child doesn’t return. … That’s just sad.”

The families have lawsuits pending against the operators of both boats, the city and others. They listened to the sentencing hearing in Hungary through an open phone line, with a lawyer and translator beside them.

Zauzmer hopes the sentence sends a message to commercial operators that “they can’t be using all these wonderful devices we have while carrying out their duties.”

Devlin must report to prison by Jan. 5. The sentence of more than a year makes him eligible for about two months off with good behavior.