The NTSB releases a preliminary report saying that while there had been a “modification” to the vehicle’s axle, it wasn’t the one called for in an October 2013 service bulletin.
OLYMPIA — The loud “bang” heard by the Ride the Ducks tour driver came just as the World War II-era amphibious vehicle sustained a mechanical failure on the assembly of its left front axle.
The failure sent the vehicle across the centerline of Seattle’s Aurora Bridge and into an oncoming charter bus in a collision that killed five and injured dozens more in late September.
Even as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report Tuesday confirming for the first time that the axle failure caused the crash, it raised other questions about the Duck’s left front-wheel assembly.
The NTSB’s preliminary reportindicates that the Duck vehicle involved in the fatal collision had an “earlier modification” made to its axle housing.
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But that modification wasn’t the one outlined in an October 2013 service bulletin as a recommended fix for that and other Duck vehicles. The NTSB has said the company did not make the fix recommended in that service bulletin, which called for “inspection and reinforcement of the front axle housing assembly” for 57 Ducks around the country.
“The left front axle assembly that failed on the accident vehicle had an earlier modification to the axle housing that had been recommended by Ride The Ducks International but did not have an associated service bulletin,” according to the report.
The NTSB report doesn’t describe what that modification entailed, or whether it contributed to the accident.
The revelation came as the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) held a hearing Tuesday that outlined the next steps in its own investigation into the company.
The UTC — which regulates commercial-passenger carriers around the state — has suspended the company’s operations pending a full investigation of its fleet and safety and operational practices.
In Tuesday’s hearing, an administrative-law judge ordered the UTC to provide its investigation report on Dec. 15.
While attorneys for the company had expressed hope that some smaller Duck vehicles could be returned to service this month, Judge Gregory Kopta said that a hearing on whether to lift the company’s suspension likely wouldn’t come before January.
The UTC team investigating the company has, among other things, inspected the smaller Ride the Ducks vehicles and is scheduled to inspect in mid-November the type involved in the deadly crash, according to a UTC staff member at the hearing.
In a complaint against the company, the UTC has alleged that Ride the Ducks Seattle broke federal safety laws and state rules, and that at least one of the vehicles was operated in an “unsafe manner.”
In a hearing before the UTC in early October, an attorney for the company announced that Duck vehicles would no longer use the Aurora Bridge and expressed hope that the smaller Duck vehicles, with a design different from the one involved in the collision, could be returned to service after clearing inspection.
Those types of Duck vehicles don’t have any questions over mechanical issues regarding a wheel axle, which is part of the focus of investigations into the collision.
Witnesses to the collision have said the Ride the Ducks vehicle appeared to have a mechanical problem with its left front wheel before swerving and crossing the narrow bridge’s centerline and careening into a charter bus owned by Bellair Charters & Airporter.
One of the crash survivors, a Korean student, is suing the company, as well as the Atlanta-based Ride the Ducks International over the axle issue.
The UTC investigation isn’t just examining circumstances around the Sept. 24 crash but also inspecting the safety of the all the Duck vehicles and reviewing the company’s maintenance and training practices.
In mid-October, the company announced that once it resumes service, it would add a second crew member to its vehicles.
Tom Norwalk, CEO and president of Visit Seattle, called on the UTC to allow at least some inspected duck vehicles to begin operating again.
While he acknowledged that “certainly the safety issue is critical,” Norwalk said it wasn’t fair to suspend an entire company’s operations over one accident.
“You investigate and you try to make some improvements, but you don’t just shut them down,” Norwalk said Monday.
Patricia Buchanan, attorney for Ride the Ducks Seattle, said at the Tuesday hearing that getting the company’s “130 employees back to work is a paramount concern.”
A spokesman representing Ride the Ducks Seattle on Tuesday didn’t respond to requests for comment regarding the NTSB report.
The crash also rekindled years of safety concerns that transportation officials and lawmakers have had about the Aurora Bridge. Traffic on the span is squeezed onto the tightest six-lane highway bridge in the state, and there is no median.
Shortly after the accident, legislators asked city and state transportation officials to come up with ideas to improve safety on the bridge.