Washington state suspends operations of duck tour company

AP News
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Posted: Sep 28, 2015 4:26 PM
Washington state suspends operations of duck tour company

SEATTLE (AP) — Washington state regulators suspended the operations of a Seattle tour company Monday after one of its amphibious vehicles swerved into an oncoming charter bus last week, killing five people and hurting dozens of others.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission met in an emergency session to keep the repurposed military "duck boats" off the streets pending inspections and a review of driver and maintenance records.

The decision came a day after federal investigators announced that the duck boat involved in the crash did not have an axle repair that was recommended two years ago. Early indications are that Ride the Ducks of Seattle had not repaired axles on any of its vehicles, said David Pratt, the commission's assistant director for transportation safety.

"Because of the possibility of continuing safety problems and a current lack of confidence surrounding the company's operations, we believe it is important to act immediately to protect the public safety," commission chairman David Danner said.

In anticipation of the move, Brian Tracey, owner of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, said Sunday night that he was in "complete agreement" with keeping the boats parked pending the inspections.

Ride the Ducks International, which in 2005 refurbished the vehicle involved in the crash, warned its customers in 2013 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 said.

Witnesses described seeing the duck boat's left front tire lock up Thursday before it veered into the bus. Federal investigators said they found the left front axle sheared off, though it wasn't clear if the axle had broken before or after the crash.

Investigators say it will likely take a year to determine the cause of the crash.

Four international college students died at the scene, and a fifth — identified as a 20-year-old woman — died Sunday. They were among about 45 students and staff from North Seattle College who were on the bus when the tourist-carrying duck boat swerved into it on the six-lane Aurora Bridge with no median.

More than 50 people were taken to hospitals. At least 13 people remained hospitalized.

Ride the Ducks International told authorities late Saturday about the warning, Weener said. It's unclear if Ride the Ducks of Seattle was aware of it, he said.

The statement from the company's owner did not say whether he knew about the warning.

"We are working to understand what happened and have completely opened our operations to NTSB investigators," Tracey said.

The transportation commission said it did not learn of the warning until last weekend and that Ride the Ducks of Seattle had no legal obligation to report it.

"If I had received it, we would have immediately contacted the company and worked with them to talk about the repairs that were needed repairs or the seriousness of it," Pratt said.

The amphibious vehicle tours operate around the world, including in Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; Miami; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and London. 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 about the warning Ride the Ducks International issued. It wasn't clear what prompted it, how the potential failure was discovered or whether it applied to all duck boats or only those that the company had refurbished, Weener said.

It wasn't clear how many of the 100 duck boats in service nationally may have had the repair, he said.

Several duck tour companies did not immediately respond for requests for information about the warning and whether they had made repairs. Miami's tour company noted that it uses newer boats — built since 2004 — and said the warning had nothing to do with its fleet.

The alert 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.

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La Corte reported from Olympia.