A former Ride the Ducks mechanic who last year inspected the front axle of the vehicle involved in last week’s deadly Aurora Bridge crash said he “never heard anything” about a service bulletin recommending a safety repair.
When mechanic Dominick Anderson checked the axle of the amphibious tourist vehicle known as Duck No. 6 in March 2014, he didn’t notice any problems.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with the axle back then,” said Anderson, 22, who left the Ride the Ducks of Seattle excursion company about a year and a half ago for a job working on semi-trucks.
A 36-page inspection report on the Duck vehicle that last week plowed into a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge, killing five people, shows Anderson and another mechanic separately initialed and dated parts of a maintenance checklist in late 2013 and early 2014 on the vehicle’s steering and front axle. Neither mechanic found a need to take any corrective action, the report shows.
During another annual inspection of Duck No. 6 conducted several months later, in November 2014, Brandon Wooden, a different Ride the Ducks mechanic, also reviewed the front axle without making any repairs, records show.
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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), now investigating the deadly accident, announced Sunday the Seattle company that provides excursion tours aboard a fleet of refurbished World War II-era amphibious vehicles didn’t make a safety fix recommended for Duck No. 6’s axle.
Ride the Ducks International, an Atlanta-based company that refurbished and sold Duck No. 6 to the independently owned and operated Seattle Ducks firm, said in statements this week that it issued a service bulletin in October 2013 recommending “inspection and reinforcement of the front axle housing assembly” for 57 Ducks around the nation, including the ill-fated Duck in Seattle.
Anderson, who noted any number of issues could have occurred with Duck No. 6’s axle since he inspected it 18 months ago, said Tuesday he doesn’t recall ever receiving a special repair advisory while he worked for Ride the Ducks.
“I never heard anything about a service bulletin,” he said.
Wooden, the mechanic who performed the subsequent November 2014 axle inspection, did not respond to messages left for him Tuesday seeking comment for this story.
Attempts to reach Joe Hatten, Ride the Ducks’ fleet-maintenance manager, and Isaac Hoffman, the foreman who supervises the company’s crew of seven mechanics, also were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Mark Firmani, a public-relations strategist representing Seattle Ride the Ducks owner Brian Tracey, said Tracey would not be giving interviews Tuesday.
Instead, Firmani reissued a statement distributed Sunday that quotes Tracey saying, “We are working to understand what happened, and have completely opened our operations to NTSB investigators.”
Although the accident’s cause has yet to be determined, Duck No. 6’s shorn-off left axle, which was found in the accident’s wreckage, lines up with witness accounts that the vehicle lost control after having a mechanical problem with its left front wheel. Investigators are trying to determine why the Seattle firm didn’t make the axle repair.
During his time as a Duck mechanic, Anderson said maintenance was rigorous and routine. Annual inspections involved what Anderson described as a “complete teardown” involving a team of mechanics inspecting various components of each vehicle. He said of the axle housing, “We always looked at it for cracks.”
Mechanics also inspected each vehicle after every business day, and Duck captains examined them each morning before taking them out, he said.
“We were thorough, but only to the best of our abilities,” said Anderson, who started working for Ride the Ducks when he was 19. “I mean, so many people would come and go from the Ducks all the time.”
During the time he worked there, Anderson, who said he completed diesel-mechanics training at the vocational Universal Technical Institute, said most mechanics on the Ducks crew were in their 20s and had prior work experience.
As of Tuesday, Anderson noted, investigators had not contacted him.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) on Monday suspended Ride the Ducks’ operations pending a probe that includes inspecting the company’s entire fleet of at least 20 Duck vehicles. Along with various operational and safety checks, state regulators will try to figure out whether any of the other Ducks have unaddressed axle problems, a UTC spokeswoman said Tuesday.
On Monday, UTC’s transportation safety manager, David Pratt, said his staff will file a formal complaint against Ride the Ducks of Seattle this week, “alleging that the company operated at least one of its vehicles in an unsafe manner.” A hearing on that complaint has been set for Thursday.
In all, five North Seattle College students were killed and dozens more people were injured when Duck No. 6 swerved, crossed the narrow Aurora Bridge’s centerline and careened into a bus owned by Bellair Charters & Airporter.
Nine patients remained hospitalized Wednesday morning at Harborview Medical Center, all in satisfactory condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. One other patient was in satisfactory condition at UW Medical Center.
Before last week’s accident in Seattle, Duck vehicles nationwide had been involved in at least three deadly accidents since 1999; only one of those was caused by poor maintenance, according to the NTSB and news reports. The U.S. Coast Guard, which regulates Ducks in waterways, said last week it has inspected and certified 142 Duck vehicles for operation nationwide.
Ride the Ducks International of Atlanta, the nation’s largest operator of Ducks, stated all Duck vehicles operated by it and its licensees, including Seattle, “contain limited elements of their military origins,” such as original frame rails.
Each “vehicle is fully refurbished, modernized and updated to meet and exceed DOT standards,” the company’s statement said. “This includes everything from engine, suspension, interior and safety equipment similar to what is found in a modern bus or heavy-duty truck.”
Built in 1945, Duck No. 6 in Seattle’s fleet was last refurbished in 2005, the NTSB has said.