The details vary, but the theme of Eric Bishop’s recurring nightmare has always been the same since that day about 3 1/2 years ago.
“It’s usually about the bridge,” the 58-year-old Sumner man said Friday. “I get to watch five people die, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Bishop, a former commercial air pilot and avid outdoorsman, had been working only about five months as a “captain” for Ride the Ducks of Seattle on Sept. 24, 2015, when he climbed behind the wheel of Duck No. 6 with 36 passengers on board. He had no idea the amphibious vehicle’s front left axle was defective and would snap, dooming what had been a carefree tourist joyride into what his lawyer described as “the worst wreck in Seattle history.”
For the first time Friday, Bishop spoke about what happened that day — and the months of anguish that have wracked him ever since — when the vehicle he was driving veered across the Aurora Bridge into oncoming traffic, plowing into a charter bus heading in the opposite direction. Five North Seattle College students riding the bus to a student orientation were killed, and more than 60 other people were injured.
One of those badly hurt was Bishop, who ruptured his spleen, broke nine ribs and suffered other injuries, yet nonetheless helped get every passenger off of the vehicle and treated before seeking help for himself. Larry Kahn, one of Bishop’s attorneys, said his client’s heroism initially was lost amid a cloud of suspicion that hung over Bishop until federal investigators exonerated him.
“Quite frankly, it’s the prime reason why we’re doing this today — to let the world know that Eric Bishop did not in any way contribute to this horrible wreck and is the hero in this tragedy,” Kahn said during a news conference at his Kirkland law offices.
Kahn and Brian Sullivan, Bishop’s other lawyer, also announced that Bishop would receive $2 million as part of a settlement with Ride the Ducks International (RTDI), the Missouri-based manufacturer of the Duck vehicle involved in the crash. Under the deal’s terms, the company agreed it was “solely at fault for the mechanical failure” that caused the wreck.
Bishop’s settlement is the latest in a string of multimillion-dollar legal judgments and settlements in the wake of the deadly crash. In February, a King County jury awarded $123 million to victims and family members representing 40 people killed or injured in the crash. Last month, a German au pair critically injured in the wreck received a $7 million settlement from RTDI and Ride the Ducks Seattle, the independent licensee that operated the vehicle.
Flanked by his lawyers, Bishop described the moments leading up to and during the crash that changed his life. Everything seemed normal until he heard a “clunk clunk” sound before the vehicle started to veer out of its lane while crossing the bridge. Bishop said he gently tugged at the steering wheel, but the vehicle didn’t respond,. Suddenly, it veered left sharply in what he called an “uncommanded turn” as the front left axle snapped.
“I was basically in the fight for my life — our lives — 37 souls on board,” he said. “… And then when that wheel broke, I couldn’t move it. I was standing on the brakes, with both hands trying to pull that wheel back, to get her to go northbound again, back into the lanes we were at, and she just did not respond.”
The last thing Bishop remembered seeing was a flash of the bus’ colors — “black and white and then impact,” he said.
Glass from the Duck’s windshield sprayed into his face as Bishop was flattened against the steering wheel, he said. A passenger sent airborne landed on his back, and another woman lay unconscious nearby, when Bishop finally managed to get to his feet. “I stood up and I turned around,” he said, “and that’s when I saw hell.”
Despite his own injuries, Bishop clicked into what he called “rescue mode,” trying to help each and every passenger out of the vehicle.
“It was, OK, we need to fix this. We need to help people,” he recalled. “We need to get people off the Duck and we need to help the people that are injured. And by then, I heard sirens. I knew that help was on the way.”
All of Bishop’s three dozen passengers survived. If it hadn’t been for the bus, Bishop said, he and all of his passengers that day would be dead.
“We would’ve careened right off (of the bridge),” he said. “Those five souls gave their lives for 37 more.”
Kahn called his client a “true hero.”
“With his face full of glass, bleeding, with a ruptured spleen, nine broken ribs, back and neck injuries, Eric refused treatment until everyone on that Duck was taken care of,” Kahn said. “During the course of this litigation, when Seattle firefighters testified, several welled up in tears over his bravery.”
Only later, at the hospital, did Bishop understand the extent of his injuries, he said. In the time since the accident, Bishop said he still suffers back, neck, leg and rib pain on a daily basis. His participation in his passions — flying, backpacking, sailing and mountaineering — has been limited because of his injuries. He’s also receiving counseling for emotional trauma.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ultimately determined that RTDI’s improper manufacture of the Duck vehicle with a defective axle, and the Seattle Ducks’ failure to replace it, caused the deadly crash. When it issued its findings in November 2016, the NTSB also specifically noted that the crash was “not a case of an impaired, fatigued, or distracted driver.”
The findings validated what Bishop already knew, but the cloud of suspicion that had been hanging over him took its toll, he said. Though he was later dropped from them, Bishop was named as a defendant in early civil lawsuits stemming from the crash.
“I knew deep down inside, I had nothing to do with this,” Bishop said. “… Until the NTSB report came out, it was like being on pins and needles. You can’t sleep, you can’t eat. You really can’t describe it. It’s horrific.”
Correction: A story on the front page of the Saturday, May 25 print edition incorrectly stated how long ago the crash involving a Ride the Ducks vehicle occurred on the Aurora Bridge. The crash occurred about 3 1/2 years ago.