By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Witnesses at a federal hearing on Monday provided graphic descriptions of passengers struggling to survive as a Philadelphia Duck Boat was rammed and sank in the Delaware River in a 2010 accident that killed two students.
The families of Dora Schwendtner, 16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20, two Hungarian students who drowned when the amphibious craft was hit by a 250-foot (76-metre) barge pushed by a tugboat, are facing off with boat owners in the hearing, which is to determine whether maritime law applies in the case.
The boat companies, Ride the Ducks and K-Sea Transportation Partners, which operated the tug pushing the barge, want to claim federal maritime law, which would limit damages to the value of the vessels, or about $1.8 million.
If the victims' families win their argument, the case would head to Pennsylvania courts for a civil trial seeking damages in a process lawyers said could take years.
A duck boat is an amphibious vehicle, popular for tours in many cities, that can drive on city streets and plunge into water.
At the hearing before U.S. Senior District Judge Thomas O'Neill, a lawyer for Schwendtner's family showed a video of a person he said was the teenager tossing her life preserver to crewman Kyle Burkhardt, who jumped overboard just before the Duck Boat was hit.
"Dora threw her life preserver to Burkhardt to save his life," said the lawyer, Robert Mongeluzzi.
Burkhardt was one of the 35 passengers and crew who survived.
"I am speechless," the teen's father, Peter Schwendtner, said through an interpreter after watching the video. "I don't know how to respond. I'm broken up."
Alysia Petchulat, of Belleville, Illinois, said she pulled a life jacket from an overhead rack to put on her 11-year-old son when it appeared the Duck Boat was about to be hit. She could not buckle it and told him to hold on to it.
"I grabbed him and held on to him and said 'We're going to make it,'" she said. "We were hit. It was an awful sound, metal on metal, and we were in the water."
In the water, Petchulat said, "People were everywhere. You could feel people underneath you trying to get up."
Matthew Devlin, 35, who was operating the tug that day, is serving a prison sentence of a year and a day on a criminal misconduct charge that is the maritime equivalent to involuntary manslaughter. The federal hearing was scheduled to resume on Tuesday and expected to take several weeks.
(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst, Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)