By Joseph A. Slobodzian
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
For three hours Tuesday, the tears flowed as Matthew Devlin and his wife, Corinne, described their remorse and misery since he piloted a 250-foot barge over a duck boat stalled in the Delaware off Penn’s Landing and killed two Hungarian students.
U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis sympathized, calling the couple “good people” and good parents, and adding that “this case is sadness, permanent human sadness on both sides of the ocean. “Then Davis sentenced Devlin, 35, to a year and a day in prison, saying that as a marine pilot Devlin was a trained professional whom the public depended on to set aside personal problems and do his job.
Devlin will surrender Jan. 5 at a federal prison.
“You were pushing a barge the size of a football field,” Davis said. “Very few people are entrusted with that level of responsibility.”
Devlin, of Catskill, N.Y., pleaded guilty in July to the federal maritime-law equivalent of involuntary manslaughter in the collision that killed Hungarian students Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20.
The students drowned in the Delaware at 2:37 p.m. July 7, 2010, when Devlin’s tug, pushing an empty municipal waste barge, ran over and sank a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle carrying 37 crew and passengers.
“I know what I did,” Devlin told Davis, “and I know I feel responsibility for the deaths of these two students every single day with my heart and my mind.”
Neither victim’s parents were in court. But both families listened to the sentencing by phone with a translator and lawyer in Hungary.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer played a video in which the parents toured their children’s bedrooms and talked of their loss. Both victims were their families’ only children.
Devlin testified that he had been upset and distracted after his wife called him at 12:50 p.m. with news that their son Jacob, then 5, had been deprived of oxygen for eight minutes while undergoing corrective eye surgery.
“I shouldn’t have called him, but I was so nervous and panicked,” Corinne Devlin said, sobbing. Her husband wept listening to her.
Though the child recovered, Devlin and his wife testified that they were hysterical, fearing he was brain-dead.
Devlin said he went from the tug’s upper wheelhouse to the lower wheelhouse, which had limited visibility, because it was quieter. He said he received and made up to 20 calls to relatives and researched oxygen deprivation on the tug’s computer. Devlin said he also turned down the volume of the two-band marine emergency radio and thus never heard calls warning of the impending crash.
“Everyone saw this happening but you,” the judge said.
Devlin acknowledged that his company, K-Sea Transportation Partners L.P., forbids pilots to make cellphone calls or use the wheelhouse computer for private business while at the helm.
Devlin faced three to four years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but Davis agreed with defense attorney Frank DeSimone, who argued that the sequence of events leading to the crash was unique.
“He made every bad decision in the world because at that point he could not make a decision,” said DeSimone, referring to Devlin’s shock over his son. DeSimone cited Devlin’s unblemished three-year pilot record and lack of criminal history, and urged house arrest so Devlin could still support his family. Zauzmer also sympathized with Devlin and praised his decision to plead guilty and accept responsibility for the collision.
But Zauzmer said it was important to send a message to operators of mass-transportation vehicles who may be tempted to use cellphones and other high-tech devices while on duty.
Davis’ sentence, which includes three years of supervised release after prison, struck a middle ground. Davis said some prison time was warranted because Devlin was a licensed professional trained to handle difficult situations. He questioned Devlin for almost an hour, analyzing his state of mind at each crucial point as the tug pilot guided the barge upriver.
Davis cited Devlin’s own testimony that he had asked the tug captain to be relieved of duty when he learned of the birth of both children. The captain granted his requests and Devlin said he was not penalized.
Yet, the judge noted, Devlin never asked to be relieved during last year’s crisis involving his son: “You should have stepped away. You could have stepped away. You were trained to step away . . . I don’t know why you didn’t.”