Some witnesses said the Duck appeared to have a mechanical problem with a wheel right before the deadly accident on the Aurora Bridge.
The Ride the Ducks vehicle involved in Thursday’s deadly crash on the Aurora Bridge has not undergone a state inspection for at least 12 years, transportation regulators acknowledged Friday, but over the weekend said records of other recent inspections have been obtained.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), which regulates commercial motor carriers statewide, last conducted a comprehensive compliance review of Ride the Ducks of Seattle in December 2012, giving the company a “satisfactory” rating.
But the amphibious vehicle involved in the crash — identified by the Coast Guard as Duck No. 6 — was not among a sampling of five Ducks inspected during that review, UTC spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell said.
“The vehicle involved in (the) crash was not part of the inspection sample in 2012,” Maxwell said in an email to The Seattle Times. “Our inspectors physically look at a sample of cars; the size of the sample is based on the company fleet. For a company this size, our inspector typically conducts inspections on five vehicles, which was what the 2012 inspection consisted of.”
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Maxwell said when Duck No. 6 was last examined in 2003, UTC inspectors found no safety violations.
In addition, companies like Ride the Ducks are required to conduct their own annual inspections on each vehicle in their fleets.
Maxwell said Saturday that UTC inspectors have obtained records showing Duck No. 6 met that requirement. UTC inspectors have those records for 2014 and 2015.
Maxwell also said those inspections must be done by a federally certified inspector, but she didn’t have those records.
In addition, Maxwell said Saturday that UTC has obtained paperwork showing the company has been undertaking daily inspections on its vehicles.
Information about the state’s last inspection on Duck No. 6 emerged Friday amid three separate investigations launched in the accident’s wake. Some witnesses have reported the Duck appeared to have a mechanical problem with a wheel right before it fishtailed, careened across the bridge’s centerline and slammed broadside into an oncoming Bellair Charters & Airporter bus.
The driver of the charter bus, which carried dozens of North Seattle College students, told company officials it appeared the Duck driver lost control of the six-wheeled vehicle just before it veered into the bus and killed four passengers, said Bellair President Richard Johnson.
“We were heading southbound on Aurora and the Duck boat was heading north,” Johnson said Friday, recalling the driver’s account. “The Duck boat lost control and crossed the lanes and into our coach.
“It happened so fast,” he said.
Four students killed
Katie Moody, 30, of Fremont, Calif., said she was seated a couple of rows behind the Duck driver with her parents when she felt the vehicle begin to swerve.
Her 57-year-old father, Greg Moody, heard the driver exclaim, “Oh, no,” just before the collision.
“I looked up and saw the bus coming at us,” she said during an interview Friday at Harborview Medical Center, where she is recovering from a broken collarbone and other injuries.
The charter bus was carrying 48 students and staff from North Seattle College’s international program during an orientation trip when the collision occurred just after 11 a.m. Thursday. The international students killed in the crash were identified as Claudia Derschmidt, a 49-year-old woman from Austria; Privando Putradanto, an 18-year-old man from Indonesia; Mami Sato, a 36-year-old woman from Japan; and Runjie Song, 17, of China.
Forty other passengers aboard the Duck and the bus were injured.
The yet-to-be identified “captain” of the Duck started working at the company in February, the UTC’s Maxwell said, so he also wasn’t part of the state’s last review, when the company’s drivers were checked for proper credentials. Since the accident, Maxwell noted UTC inspectors have reviewed the driver’s credentials “and have found no issues.”
Seattle police conducted a preliminary evaluation of both drivers following the crash and said they did not find any evidence of impairment.
Company passed state check
After the accident, the UTC released its most recent inspection report of Ride the Ducks from December 2012, in which an inspector described the firm as “safety-oriented.” Such inspections, which review various aspects of a commercial-charter bus company’s operations, including compliance with safety requirements, occur on a two- to three-year basis, Maxwell said.
Inspectors randomly select the vehicles to check, and a company must make all vehicles available for such reviews, which include mechanical inspections, checks on records, insurance and drivers’ credentials.
Between the 2003 and 2012 inspections, the UTC also inspected Ride the Ducks in March 2006 and July 2010, Maxwell said.
The infrequency of such inspections comes down to a manpower issue, she said. The UTC employs just five federally trained commercial-vehicle inspectors charged with conducting inspections of all motor carrier firms statewide, she said.
From 2012 to 2014, the average number of compliance-review assignments completed by UTC motor-carrier inspectors was 75 per year, Maxwell said.
Aside from state reviews, charter-bus companies such as Ride the Ducks are “required to perform Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) inspections on every vehicle, once a year,” Maxwell said. “They are required to maintain that documentation in their files, which the UTC will look for in our compliance review.”
Those are the records Maxwell said Saturday that UTC inspectors now have for 2014 and 2015.
Federal investigators arrive
A former Duck driver told The Times that drivers were required to inspect the vehicle before going out, which included getting on a slider board and going underneath to check for any cracked seals, loose bolts or anything else out of order.
Ride the Ducks President and CEO Brian Tracey did not return calls for comment Friday.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also launched their own examination to determine “all of the things that went wrong and why they went wrong,” said Earl Weener, a board member.
“The purpose of our investigation is not just to understand what happened, but why it happened and to issue safety recommendations which will prevent the accident from occurring again,” Weener said.
The NTSB’s multidisciplinary team of investigators — or “Go Team” — arrived in Seattle Friday morning from Washington, D.C. The team includes experts who will examine mechanical conditions of vehicles, along with any potential human, safety mechanism and bridge-structural factors, Weener said.
Investigators are also asking witnesses who have photographs, video or other relevant information to call a Seattle police hotline at 206-233-5000, Weener said.
Such NTSB probes — which can include an on-scene investigation for about a week, followed by months of analysis at NTSB headquarters — typically last about a year, Weener said.
The Seattle Police Department is also conducting its own traffic-collision investigation.
The amphibious Duck vehicles also fall under the Coast Guard’s authority. That agency annually inspects the 20 Ducks in operation in Seattle to assess their safety in the water, a Coast Guard spokesman said Thursday. Duck No. 6 was last inspected by the Coast Guard and approved for operations in March.
The NTSB previously has investigated at least two multiple-fatality accidents involving Duck vehicles in other states, both of which occurred on water.
“We have not investigated an amphibious vehicle on land,” Weener said. “… so this is a new aspect of amphibious vehicles for us.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said Friday that Ride the Ducks has agreed to keep its six-wheeled tour vehicles off the roads after the crash.
Bellair Charters, based in Ferndale, Whatcom County, was last inspected by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2013 and received a satisfactory rating, according to the UTC. The company’s overall safety record in the last two years appears to be good, according to federal records.
College community gathers
Students, faculty and staff gathered Friday morning at North Seattle College to meet with college President Warren Brown, Mayor Murray, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and other officials to discuss the crash.
“Yesterday was one of the most difficult days to be mayor,” Murray told the media afterward. “It was one of the most moving days to be mayor as I watched this city come together to help people, young people, whose families were in pain.”
Murray said his office and the Seattle Department of Transportation will look into the safety of the Aurora Bridge, which has long been a concern because of the span’s narrow traffic lanes. While Murray noted the bridge is “structurally sound,” barriers between the two directions of traffic could be considered.
North Seattle College will be open for the first scheduled day of fall quarter on Monday, but Brown said students wouldn’t be dropped for not attending that day.
Seattle Times staff reporters Evan Bush, Dan Beekman, Bob Young and Katherine Long contributed to this story.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan