PHILADELPHIA – A tug pilot distracted by cellphone calls amid a family emergency was sentenced Tuesday to a year in prison for a deadly river crash in Philadelphia that killed two Hungarian students.
Pilot Matthew Devlin of Catskill, N.Y., was virtually driving blind as he pushed a huge barge through a busy shipping channel on the Delaware River, prosecutors said. He ran over a stalled duck boat, sinking the tour boat and sending 37 people onboard into the fast-moving river.
Devlin had spent nearly an hour on a cellphone and laptop, and turned down a marine radio, stifling Mayday calls from the duck boat and others before the July 7, 2010 crash. He had also moved to a lower wheelhouse so he could hear better, though it blocked 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 about a mile ahead. Six minutes later, the barge drives right over the duck boat.
"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. His 5-year-old son had suffered a serious complication during routine eye surgery. The duck boat overheated on the 103-degree day because someone left a radiator cap off. The duck boat captain mistook the steam for an engine fire, and anchored the boat in the busy channel.
Many 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 son had been deprived of oxygen during the surgery. He made repeated 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, Corinne, feels responsible for calling him on duty.
"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 Hungarian group 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," the judge 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 K-Sea Transportation of East Brunswick, N.J., which operated the tug; Ride the Ducks of Norcross, Ga., which operated the tour boat; the city of Philadelphia, which owned the sludge barge; 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.
Davis accepted his remorse and noted his otherwise unblemished work record. Devlin's father-in-law, a retired port captain, had gotten him into the maritime trade, and he had risen from deckhand to first mate in about nine years.
Devlin also had training about another tug accident involving a cellphone distraction, and knew his company banned their use.
Davis questioned why he had not awoken his captain, who was sleeping nearby about the emergency. Tug boat crews work in pairs, with a pilot and deckhand rotating six-hour duty, round the clock. They typically work two weeks at a time.
"In our particular job, there's very few times when you want to actually knock on a captain's door and wake him up," Devlin said. "His sleep is very important."
Devlin said he thought he could handle the job while also dealing with his son's emergency.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which prepared a 4,400-page report on the crash, fears too many people feel the same way.
"Distraction is becoming the new DUI," NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a June hearing on the case. "This is going to reach epidemic proportions."
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