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Philly trial opens with video of deadly river accident, testimony of 'awful sound' of crash
PHILADELPHIA (AP) ' Video footage played Monday at the opening of a trial stemming from the boat crash that killed two Hungarian tourists shows the teenage girl killed in the collision toss a deckhand her life jacket moments before the doomed vessel is driven under by an unmanned barge.
Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi told a packed Philadelphia federal courtroom that 16-year-old Dora Schwendtner's final moments were spent selflessly trying to aid deckhand Kyle Burkhardt, who dove overboard seconds before the sightseeing duck boat was run over by a barge being guided up the Delaware River by a tug boat.
"Dora throws her life preserver to Kyle Burkhardt to save his life ... and she loses her own," Mongeluzzi told the court.
The families of Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs Prem are suing tug operator K-Sea Transportation and duck boat operator Ride the Ducks over the July 2010 accident that claimed their lives and sent more than 30 other passengers into the water.
The families claim unclear safety policies and ineffective training and procedures caused the crash.
Attorneys for K-Sea Transportation and Ride the Ducks each blamed the other company ' and tug pilot Matthew Devlin, who was sentenced in November to a year in prison after pleading guilty to the maritime equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.
K-Sea attorney Wayne Meehan told the judge that Devlin had a "meltdown" and abandoned his post amid a family emergency and failed to call the Coast Guard as required after he "lost his faculties."
Mongeluzzi also said the tour company was at fault because the boat was designed so the radio and air horn didn't work when the boat's engine was shut down.
The first witness in the trial, which is expected to take a month or longer, described in emotional testimony what happened on the duck boat after it broke down on the river that day.
Alysia Petchulat of St. Louis was on the tour boat with her 9-year-old son and sat near Schwendtner and Prem. The mood was jovial in the minutes after the vessel stalled and the riders waited for a tow boat, but then the barge grew perilously closer.
Petchulat said she saw the duck boat pilot becoming more concerned. Still, no one was told to don life preservers even as the barge was bearing down, she said.
"We were hit. It was an awful sound, metal on metal; we rolled, we were in the water," she said.
She swam until she reached the surface, and her son surfaced wearing the life vest she scrambled to put on him before the collision. Petchulat said she feared she would die.
"The water was black, you couldn't see anything," she said. "You could feel people underneath you trying to get up (to the surface)."
Ride the Ducks attorney Jack Snyder argued that nothing the company or the crew did that day caused the victims' deaths. He said the duck was helpless in the channel when it was struck and run over by the barge.
Snyder said the river is almost 2,200 feet wide at the collision site and the barge had plenty of room to get around it but could not because the tug was being driven blind and deaf, as Devlin also had the radio turned down and would not have been able to hear an emergency air horn.
Outside the courtroom, Schwendtner's father told reporters through an interpreter that he had no words to describe seeing the footage of his daughter's final selfless act.
"This is the type of person she was," Peter Schwendtner said.