The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday determined that a 2010 accident on the Delaware River that killed two people and injured numerous others occurred because a tugboat mate was using his cell phone and lap top computer while towing a barge up the river.

The NTSB’s investigation found that the mate failed to maintain a proper lookout while towing the empty 250-foot-long sludge barge that collided with DUKW 34, an anchored amphibious passenger vehicle, which sunk in 55 feet of water. Two of the passenger vehicle’s 35 passengers died in the incident; 26 passengers and one crew member suffered minor injuries.

The NTSB said the mate was inattentive to his duties while navigating the vessel because he was communicating with family members and dealing with a family emergency. Further, rather than being in the upper wheel house as expected, the tugboat mate was navigating from its lower wheel house where visibility of the channel ahead was limited.

"This is yet another example of the deadliness of distractions," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman. "Distraction is a safety concern across all modes of transportation. Regardless of the reason, it's not okay to multi-task while operating a vehicle - whether it's calling, texting, or surfing the web."

The investigation also revealed that maintenance personnel from Ride The Ducks International, LLC, the DUKW 34 owner and operator, did not ensure that the surge tank pressure cap was securely in place before returning the vehicle to passenger service. This allowed the engine to overheat, leading the DUKW 34 master to stop the vessel and anchor in an active channel.

Further, NTSB investigators found that while Ride The Ducks International, LLC, had written procedures for safe operational practices and emergency situations, the master of DUKW 34 did not take all actions appropriate to address the risk of anchoring in an active navigation channel. The NTSB determined these omissions contributed to the accident.

The NTSB issued recommendations to both Ride The Ducks International, LLC, and K-Sea Transportation Partners L.P., to review its management program and develop improved means to ensure that the company's safety and emergency procedures are understood and heeded by all employees in safety- critical positions. The NTSB also issued recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard to increase focus on and oversight of inappropriate use of cell phones and other wireless electronic devices by on-duty crewmembers in safety-critical positions so that such use does not affect vessel operational safety. Additionally, the NTSB issued a recommendation to the American Waterways Operators to encourage their members to ensure that their safety and emergency procedures are understood and adhered to by their employees in safety-critical positions.