Matthew R. Devlin, the first mate whose cellphone use caused last summer’s fatal duck-boat accident, entered a guilty plea Monday and told a federal judge that he regretted decisions that contributed to the deaths of two young tourists.
His appearance at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia was the first time he had spoken publicly about the July 7, 2010, accident on the Delaware River.
A tearful Devlin explained to Judge Legrome D. Davis that he had abandoned his duty as lookout because he had learned that his 5-year-old son had been deprived of oxygen during routine eye surgery in Albany, N.Y., near the family’s home in Catskill.
“I got news that my son had gone eight minutes without oxygen, and I didn’t know what that meant. The only connection I had was my cellphone and I used that, and I really wish I hadn’t,” Devlin said. “I really wish I could take it all back.”
Devlin, who was operating a tugboat that pushed a barge into a duck, pleaded guilty to a charge of misconduct of a ship operator causing death, the maritime-law equivalent of manslaughter. He will be sentenced Nov. 1 and faces from 37 to 46 months in prison. He is free on $10,000 bail.
Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, both of Hungary, died in the accident. They were among 35 tourists on the duck. The accident sent the passengers into the water, and Schwendtner and Prem drowned.
Shortly before Devlin’s 50-minute hearing, a woman who said she had been a passenger on the duck when the accident happened approached him in the hallway outside the courtroom. She asked if he was Matt Devlin. He initially said, “No,” but then asked who she was.
“A survivor,” said the woman, who would not give her name. He immediately got up from the bench where he was sitting and said, “I’m sorry, so sorry.” He then asked reporters to give them some time alone. He and the woman hugged for at least a minute. Devlin’s wife was overheard saying, “I’m sorry, too. We were just worried about our son.”
Their son was all right, but Devlin, 35, did not know that as he used his cellphone to talk to family members and as he researched oxygen deprivation, using a company laptop.
Devlin’s lawyer, Frank DeSimone, put his arm around his client as he spoke to the judge.
After he entered his plea, Devlin and his wife cried and hugged. They would not speak to reporters.
It’s still not clear why Devlin did not ask one of his crewmates for help when he learned about his son’s problem. On Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer said he would let Devlin answer that question at the sentencing hearing. Zauzmer told the judge that he believed Devlin was sorry about what happened.
“Mr. Devlin has been very remorseful about this accident,” Zauzmer said. “His son’s oxygen was severely limited for an eight-minute period. . . . Mr. Devlin made a series of very bad decisions as he was dealing with this crisis.”
Zauzmer also noted that in addition to using his cellphone and leaving the upper wheelhouse for a lower one, where visibility was reduced, Devlin had turned down the radio on the tug, so he never heard distress calls from duck Capt. Gary Fox.
DeSimone said that Devlin, who has suffered nightmares about the accident, had made bad decisions because of panic about his son.
“He just wasn’t thinking clearly,” DeSimone told reporters outside the courthouse. “Try to put yourself in his position. He had just been told his son was dying or was going to become brain-damaged.”
Lawyers for the families of Schwendtner and Prem and some passengers are pursuing a civil suit against Ride the Ducks International L.L.C., which operates the amphibious vehicles, and against K-Sea Transportation Partners L.P., which owned the tug, the Caribbean Sea.
“We appreciate that Mr. Devlin is remorseful, and we wish that his company, K-Sea Transportation, and Ride the Ducks would show the same type of remorse, rather than trying to limit the damages of the families of these dead children to the value of the salvaged duck boat and tug boat,” said one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Robert Mongeluzzi. “He accepted his responsibility. They continue to try to evade theirs.”
A spokesman for K-Sea said company officials had apologized to the victims.
“K-Sea sincerely regrets that this accident happened,” the company said in a statement Monday, “and we have stated that many times.”
Bob Salmon, a spokesman for Ride the Ducks, declined to respond to Mongeluzzi’s statement, but said, “Today’s court appearance once again underscores the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board: that the probable cause of this tragic accident was Caribbean Sea mate Matt Devlin’s distraction from duty and failure to ask for relief.”
As part of the plea agreement, Devlin also has agreed to the revoking of his Coast Guard-issued mate license.
In June, the National Transportation Safety Board held Devlin primarily responsible for the crash.
The five-member board also said Ride the Ducks contributed to the accident because its mechanic had failed to secure the vessel’s surge-tank pressure cap. The missing cap caused smoke to pour into the duck, leading the captain to believe there was a fire, prompting him to stop the duck in the shipping channel.
Fox has voluntarily surrendered his skipper’s license, and the Coast Guard may take administrative action, which could include revocation of his papers.