PHILADELPHIA (CBS) –– One day before they resume full operations for the first time since a deadly accident last summer, officials with “Ride the Ducks” Philadelphia invited media onboard to demonstrate the changes they’ve made to their land and water tours.
Most of those changes are safety-related and affect the water segment.
Ducks are amphibious vehicles that whisk passengers around the streets of Old City and Society Hill before entering the Delaware River for a brief floating tour.
Among the changes: Duck boat captains now call to a lookout before entering the river to make sure no large vessels are nearby. That lookout will also be standing by with a rescue boat while any Ducks are in the water.
“We felt that’s the best way to make sure if we’re in the path of a deaf, blind and dumb barge coming up the river the same outcome won’t reoccur,” said Chris Herschend, president of “Ride the Ducks,” referring to last summer’s accident.
On July 7, 2010, a Duck boat lost power in the river and drifted into the Delaware’s main shipping channel where it was run over by a city-owned sludge barge. Two Hungarian tourists – Dora Schwendter,16, and Szabolcs Prem, 20 – were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the pilot of the tug boat pushing that barge was talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident and may have turned down his radio. (CBSPhilly’s Continuing Coverage)
“Ride the Ducks” has also substantially shortened the water portion. During the media preview, the boat was on the river just seven minutes, compared to an average of 20 minutes in past years. The Ducks now only travel a block, entering the Delaware at Race Street and turning around at Pier Five, near Arch Street.
But not all the changes are safety-related. The company is doing away with those quacking duck whistles hated by many residents along the Ducks’ land route through the Society Hill and Old City neighborhoods. “Ride the Ducks” will now hand out the whistles only at the end of the tour.
“Some folks pretty important to our success felt we should hand them out at the end,” said Herschend. “That includes community and political folks so we were happy to make that change.”
The replacement should be much quieter, if the media preview tour is any indication.
“I call it old school quacking,” said Capt. Norm Schultz while leading the tour. “Put your hands together and say ‘Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack.’”
“There have been an extraordinary number of additional precautions taken,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. He says the city asked for a number of the safety changes and also the restriction on the duck whistles. “Ride the Ducks” did not need the city’s approval to resume operations on the Delaware; it earned the approval of the Coast Guard last August and could have resumed tours then.
So now, will tourists buy back in?
“Sure,” said Geri Farrell of Sayreville, New Jersey who was touring the historic sites of Old City Wednesday with two children. “I think with one accident, safety might be better.”
“I would definitely take Joshua on the duck tours,” said Lisa Corbin of Roxborough referring to her son. “It’s an event to see. It was a tragedy but I think they’ve recovered.”
Lawyers for the victims’ families argue the Ducks are still dangerous – because of the canopy that covers the passenger compartments.
“If you have a canopy, you can’t put your life preserver on inside because you’ll get trapped by the canopy,” said Bob Mongeluzzi. “Duck boats remain death traps.”
Reported by Ben Simmoneau, CBS 3