Regulators have filed a formal complaint against Ride the Ducks, accusing the firm of operating at least one of its vehicles in an unsafe manner, causing the deadly Aurora Bridge crash. Some Ducks with a different design may be back on the road within a month.
State regulators have filed a formal complaint against Ride the Ducks that accuses the company of operating at least one of its tourist vehicles in an “unsafe manner, causing at least five deaths and dozens of injuries” in last week’s crash on the Aurora Bridge.
In its complaint, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), which regulates commercial passenger carriers statewide, alleges the Seattle excursion firm violated various federal safety laws and state rules.
“While the cause of the accident has not been identified, any number of factors may have contributed to it, including the company’s maintenance of its vehicles, driver safety or other operational issues,” the UTC’s complaint filed late Tuesday states. “Until staff conducts a comprehensive investigation of the company’s safety practices, the scope of potential safety issues cannot be established.”
Also, under an agreement between the UTC and Ride the Ducks filed Wednesday, as many as eight of the company’s smaller Duck vehicles that have a different design than the one involved in the deadly crash may be able to get back on the road within a month.
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If feasible, UTC staff has agreed to inspect the company’s so-called “Truck Ducks” first, and should they pass inspection, return them to service within 30 days, the agreement states.
“Unlike the ‘Stretch Duck’ vehicles, which were built on a World War II-era chassis and allegedly have defective axles, the Truck Duck vehicles have a different chassis and axle system,” the agreement states.
UTC spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell said Wednesday that Truck Ducks are the same width as Stretch Ducks, but overall are smaller.
The UTC’s complaint noted that “an area of concern” in the agency’s investigation of the crash involving the company’s Duck No. 6 is “a potentially dangerous failure point in the axle housing of (Ride the Ducks’) tour vehicles.”
Ride the Ducks International, an Atlanta-based firm that refurbished and sold Duck No. 6 to the independently operated Seattle company in 2005, has said it issued a service bulletin recommending a safety repair with the front axle-housing assembly for 57 Ducks, including the Duck vehicle involved in the wreck in Seattle.
“According to a statement issued by the NTSB to The Seattle Times, the vehicle involved in the Sept. 24 accident was not repaired,” the UTC’s complaint states.
The complaint added that UTC staff, which is conducting a comprehensive investigation of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, will seek to determine “whether the company received the service bulletin issued by Ride the Ducks International advising it of issues with the axle housing, and what steps the company took, if any, to remedy the defect in its vehicles.”
In all, the Seattle company had been operating nine “Stretch Ducks,” including the Duck that crashed, that were subject to the recommended safety repair. Along with the eight other Truck Ducks, Ride the Ducks owned three other Duck vehicles that weren’t in operation, Maxwell said.
Brian Tracey, the company owner, previously said in a press statement that he’s also trying to determine what happened and is cooperating with investigators.
Witnesses to the accident said Duck No. 6 appeared to have a mechanical problem with its left front wheel before swerving, crossing the narrow bridge’s centerline and careening into a charter bus owned by Bellair Charters & Airporter. Five North Seattle College students were killed and dozens more people were injured.
A former mechanic for Ride the Ducks — who inspected the axle in the months after the Atlanta company has stated it issued the October 2013 service bulletin — told The Seattle Times on Tuesday he “never heard anything about” such a safety advisory while he worked for the Seattle company.
At least three company mechanics inspected Duck No. 6’s axle during required yearly vehicle examinations after the service bulletin was said to be issued, records show. Reports for inspections on the vehicle in 2013 and 2014 show none of the mechanics took corrective actions on the axle.
The UTC’s complaint will be presented to commissioners during a hearing set for Thursday in Olympia. Commissioners are then expected to schedule an evidentiary hearing, during which UTC staff will present the findings of its investigation and make recommendations for action, Maxwell said.
Duncan Fobes, a Seattle attorney representing Ride the Ducks, is expected to attend Thursday’s hearing. Fobes could not be readily reached for comment Wednesday.
The UTC, which issues certificates of operation for passenger charter carriers, has the authority “to cancel, revoke or suspend” such licenses based on safety and other violations, according to state law.
Earlier this week, the commission issued an emergency order suspending Ride the Ducks operations pending a full investigation of the Seattle company by UTC staff, including an inspection of each of at least 20 vehicles in the fleet.
Based on the agreement filed Wednesday, the UTC only seeks to ensure the Ducks are able to safely operate. The stipulation notes both the regulators’ and company’s “joint objective is to return to service, if appropriate, within thirty days, those Truck Duck vehicles that have passed regulatory inspection in a satisfactory manner.”
The agreement added that both parties will seek to return “Stretch Ducks” to service once they have “passed regulatory inspection in a satisfactory manner, within a reasonable period of time.”
Eight patients remained hospitalized Thursday morning at Harborview Medical Center, all in satisfactory condition, a hospital spokeswoman said. One other patient was in satisfactory condition at UW Medical Center.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray issued a statement Wednesday urging the public to help crash victims and their families by donating to a fund set up through the United Way of King County.
“For many of these families, the long-term medical expenses will be considerable, not to mention the immediate needs associated with hospital stays and travel expenses,” Murray’s statement said. “As a compassionate city, this community is already coming together to provide much-needed support.”
All proceeds will go to support patients and their families, Murray said. Donations can be made at: www.uwkc.org/aurora.