A Seattle duck boat that swerved into an oncoming charter bus last week, killing five people and injuring dozens, did not have an axle repair that was recommended for at least some of the amphibious vehicles in 2013, federal investigators said.
Ride the Ducks International, which refurbished the boat in 2005, issued a warning to its customers two years ago about potential axle failure and recommended a specific repair or increased monitoring, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said.
"This particular duck had not had the fix," he told a Sunday news conference.
Witnesses described seeing the duck boat's left front tire lock up Thursday before it veered into the bus on the Aurora Bridge, and federal investigators announced Saturday that they found the duck boat's left front axle sheared off — though they said it wasn't clear if the axle had broken before or after the collision.
Weener said Ride the Ducks International informed investigators late Saturday that it had issued the warning. It's unclear if the company that owns the vehicle — Ride the Ducks of Seattle — was aware of the warning, Weener said.
"We're going to be following that," he said.
In a statement Sunday night, Ride The Ducks of Seattle owner Brian Tracey didn't say whether the company knew of the warning. "We are working to understand what happened, and have completely opened our operations to NTSB investigators," he said.
And Tracey said he was in "complete agreement" with calls by Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray that the duck boats remain sidelined pending a state inspection of all the vehicles.
Four international college students died at the scene of the crash, and a fifth — identified as a 20-year-old woman — died Sunday, Harborview Medical Center said. They were among about 45 students and staff from North Seattle College who were on the bus on the six lane bridge with no median when the tourist-carrying duck boat swerved into it.
More than 50 people were taken to hospitals. At least 13 people remained hospitalized Sunday.
The amphibious vehicle tours are offered around the world, including in Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; Miami; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and London. They feature former military landing craft repurposed as tour vehicles.
The vehicle involved in the Seattle crash was an Army surplus craft built in 1945. It was refurbished with a General Motors engine and chassis in 2005, Weener said.
The NTSB had few details Sunday about the warning Ride the Ducks International issued. It wasn't clear what prompted the warning or how the potential failure was discovered, or whether it applied to all duck boats or only those that the company had refurbished, he said. It wasn't clear how many of the 100 duck boats in service nationally may have had the repair, he said.
The warning included specific instructions for inspecting the area where the shaft could fail, as well as instructions for the repair, which involved welding collars around the axle shaft, Weener said.
Results of the federal probe are not expected for a year, he said. Investigators have interviewed 11 surviving passengers, including eight who were on the duck, as well as first responders. They expect to interview the drivers of the charter bus and the duck this week.
Weener described Ride the Ducks of Seattle as cooperative, and said the company had turned over training records and maintenance documents for the duck.
It's the first time the NTSB has looked into a land crash of the amphibious vehicles, which critics say are too dangerous for city streets. The federal agency has scrutinized duck tour vehicles several times when they've been in accidents on water.
State regulators also have opened an investigation, which entails inspecting all vehicle and driver records.
The amphibious vehicle involved in the crash — known as Duck No. 6 — underwent regular annual examinations by a federally certified inspector, most recently in 2015 and 2014, and met federal standards, said Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE DUCK BOATS?
The U.S. Army deployed thousands of amphibious landing craft during World War II that were known then by their military designation, DUKW. Once the war was over, they became used by civilian law enforcement agencies and also converted to sightseeing vehicles in U.S. cities. The DUKW designation was replaced with the duck boat moniker that is used by various tour companies.
HAVE THERE BEEN PREVIOUS ACCIDENTS WITH DUCK BOATS?
Thirteen people died in 1999 when an amphibious boat sank to the bottom of Lake Hamilton in Arkansas in an accident the National Transportation Safety Board blamed on inadequate maintenance. Investigators determined that the vessel, built by the Army in 1944, was not designed for passenger service and as a result lacked the proper buoyancy to remain afloat.
Two Hungarian tourists were killed in 2010 when a sightseeing duck boat was hit by a barge on the Delaware River near Philadelphia, sinking it in water about 55 feet deep. More than 25 people were injured. The NTSB found that the tugboat operator was distracted by communicating with family members on his cellphone and laptop computer. Investigators also found fault with the maintenance of the duck boat and decisions by the captain to anchor in an active navigation channel.
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