Shortly after 11 a.m. on September 24, 2015, a mechanical failure in its steering system causes a northbound Ride the Ducks amphibious tour vehicle to cross the center line on Seattle's Aurora Bridge and collide with a southbound charter bus carrying foreign-exchange students and staff from North Seattle Community College. Five passengers on the bus will die and dozens more in the two vehicles are injured. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will find that the cause of the accident was a known but uncorrected defect in the Duck vehicle's steering mechanism. Eventual settlements and jury verdicts in suits arising from the catastrophe will total more than $140 million.
By Land and Lake
Ride the Ducks of Seattle (RTD Seattle) first began offering tours of the city in 1997, ferrying tourists around in modified, six-wheeled World War II-era amphibious vehicles, commonly called Ducks, purchased from and operated through a licensing agreement with Ride the Ducks International (RTDI), of Branson, Missouri. Designed to ferry troops and cargo from ship to shore, Ducks could travel up to 250 miles on land and 50 miles in the water. Although rather slow and very ungainly looking, they were critical to the success of Allied invasion forces. In the words of naval architect Roderic Stephens Jr., a DUKW (the military designation) was "not very fast, but she's better in water than any truck, and she'll beat any boat on a highway" ("DUKW History").
Ride the Ducks of Seattle was an immediate success, driving up to 36 passengers per vehicle around the city on land for an hour, then (weather permitting) launching into Lake Union for a 30-minute view from the water. The experience has been characterized as a mix of "history lessons, public performance, and a campy soundtrack" ("Quack Attack ...") and "a party on wheels that floats" ("Ride the Ducks Ramp OK'd ..."). Duck drivers narrated tours through onboard loudspeakers, sharing obscure bits of Seattle history and legend, cracking corny jokes, and encouraging passengers to blow loudly on the duck-bill-shaped "quackers" included in the tour price. The brightly colored vehicles became a common sight on the city's streets and, with the exception of a serious accident involving a motorcyclist in October 2011, the company had maintained a largely injury-free safety record. By 2015 RTD Seattle operated nine lengthened "stretch" Ducks and a number of unmodified ones.
Horror on Aurora
Thursday, September 24, 2015, was a perfect fall day for a tour of Seattle, warm and mostly sunny. At about 10:35 a.m., RTD Seattle's Duck 6 loaded 36 passengers at 5th Avenue and Broad Street. The 54-year-old driver, Eric Bishop, gave the riders a safety briefing required by the Coast Guard, then started on the tour. The Duck first made its way along the waterfront to Pioneer Square, then through the downtown shopping district before heading north on Aurora Avenue N (SR 99) to reach the launch point on north Lake Union for the water portion of the tour. At about 11:10 a.m. Duck 6 reached the south end of the Aurora Bridge.
The Aurora Bridge (officially the George Washington Memorial Bridge) first opened to traffic in 1932. Built for the cars of an earlier age, it is notoriously narrow, with about four and half feet less width than any other six-lane bridge in the state. Each nine-and-a-half-foot-wide traffic lane is barely enough to accommodate Metro Transit buses, which are eight and a half feet wide, or the eight-foot-wide (not counting rearview mirrors) Ducks. Approximately 58,000 vehicles cross the span each day, and from 2005 to 2015 it was the scene of 142 crashes that caused 63 injuries. A former driver for Ride the Ducks of Seattle told The Seattle Times, "I remember being told in training that the Duck would fit in a lane, but that if you felt safer, to go ahead and straddle over the line some. Most drivers stayed in the far-right lanes, never passed on the bridge" ("Span's Narrow Lanes").
As Duck 6 started across the bridge heading north, a 2009 Motor Coach Industries bus operated by Bellair Charters was approaching the south end of the span, driving in the center southbound lane. It was carrying 48 passengers, international students from six countries who were attending North Seattle Community College (NSCC) and a few staff members. It was the first of two coaches taking students and their chaperones on tours of the city that morning.
The Aurora Bridge has a number of expansion joints spaced along its length that span the width of the structure. An expansion joint is a narrow separation between bridge sections that accommodates some movement of those sections while allowing for continuous traffic flow. Large bridges cannot safely be entirely rigid. Temperature changes, wind forces, seismic events, and the loading and unloading of the structure due to traffic can cause movements that, if not isolated, could be disastrous. Although expansion joints are designed to be flush to the roadway, motorists usually feel a slight bump when passing over them.
The driver of Duck 6 told investigators that just after he passed over the bridge's second expansion joint he heard a loud "'clunk, clunk' noise from the area of the left front axle," the vehicle suddenly drifted to the right, and "the steering felt really loose" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 2). He almost immediately lost control; the Duck vehicle veered sharply to the left, and when the driver tried to steer back to the right, the steering wheel felt "locked" and wouldn't turn ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 2). He jammed on the brakes, but the Duck didn't slow down, and in an instant it had crossed into the path of oncoming southbound traffic.
After Duck 6 hurtled across three lanes, its front left corner struck the front left corner of the first Bellair Charters coach, which had veered toward the southbound right lane in a vain attempt to avoid the collision. Hitting at an angle of about 21 degrees, the Duck penetrated the sidewall of the bus and ripped open a gash that extended to its tandem rear tires. The forward momentum of the coach spun Duck 6 around counterclockwise so that it ended up facing roughly opposite its original direction of travel. Three other vehicles were involved in the crash. A southbound Dodge Ram pickup truck hit the right side of Duck 6, then crossed the centerline and struck a northbound Toyota Tundra pickup. The Duck tipped onto its left wheels when it finally separated from the coach, rolled onto a Toyota Highlander SUV, then teetered back to an upright position.
"Bodies Just Everywhere"
The violent collision created a horrific scene. The left side of the NSCC coach had been peeled open like an old-fashioned sardine can, leaving a mass of torn and twisted wreckage where moments before students had sat chatting and enjoying the view from the bridge. Four of the coach passengers were dead, either killed at impact or dying before the first responders arrived. Claudia Derschmidt, 49, from Austria, who was visiting her son, a student at NSCC, died of multiple blunt force injuries, as did Runjie Song, a 17-year-old NSCC student from China. Privando Putradanto, 18, an NSCC student from Indonesia, and Mami Sato, 36, from Japan, died of head injuries. A fifth victim, Kim Ha Ram, 20, a student from South Korea, died three days later in the hospital. The five victims had been seated in rows 4 through 10 on the driver's side of the coach, from which two passengers had been ejected (it is unclear if they were among the fatalities) and two others partially ejected.
Bodies and debris were strewn across the bridge deck. Eleven passengers were thrown from Duck 6, five from the left side, six from the right. Tim Gesner was standing in the Duck taking a photograph of Lake Union when he heard the driver shout "Oh, no!" and then, "It was like I was in slow motion, bouncing off of things and just feeling pain shooting everywhere" ("12 Seriously Injured ..."). He later told a reporter that when the Duck came to rest, "I turned and looked, and that's when I saw the carnage. People I was sitting next to weren't there ... they'd been thrown completely out of the back of the Duck" ("12 Seriously Injured ..."). Another witness, Brad Volm, a visitor from Philadelphia who was driving one of the other three vehicles that were struck, told the reporter, "It all happened so fast. I got out of my car and there were bodies just everywhere. People laying in the street" ("12 Seriously Injured ...").
Miraculously, the driver of the coach was only slightly injured, even though the first point of impact was directly adjacent to where he sat. In addition to the fatalities, 13 passengers on the coach had severe injuries and 20 were less seriously hurt. On Duck 6, 16 people, including the driver, were seriously injured, and another 20 suffered minor injuries. No injuries were reported by the occupants of the three other vehicles.
The first 911 call to the Seattle Police Department came in at 11:11 a.m., within a minute of the collision. Two minutes later the dispatcher declared the crash a "multiple casualty incident" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 10). Two minutes after that the Seattle Fire Department's incident commander reached the scene and began triage. Additional fire units arrived within minutes, and the first police officers reached the scene by 11:21.
The bridge was soon flooded with rescue personnel. The fire department was given initial control and soon had 11 life-support aid cars at the crash site, along with its medical ambulance bus. The American Medical Response Ambulance Service sent 36 life-support ambulances, and the Shoreline Fire Department dispatched two aid cars. Eventually, more than 100 Seattle Police units were on the scene, as well as an accident-response team from the Seattle Department of Transportation.
The Aurora Bridge was closed in both directions. The most severely injured were transferred to Harborview Medical Center's Trauma Center, and those less seriously hurt were distributed among other area hospitals. Canlis, a luxury restaurant near the southeast corner of the bridge, closed its doors and had its staff carry gourmet food to emergency crews. Rescue operations were completed shortly before 1 p.m. and command was transferred to the police department for the investigation phase.
Witnesses had reported that Duck 6 appeared to have suffered some sort of failure at its left front wheel. One, Jesse Christenson of Portland, Oregon, had been driving immediately behind the Duck when it suddenly swerved sharply to the left. He at first thought it was a tire blowout, but told investigators, "It looked like the wheel on the Duck bus broke off. There was a wheel assembly in front of the Duck boat" ("12 Seriously Injured ...").
Christenson's observation proved accurate. Within two days of the accident, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators had zeroed in on the Duck's left front axle, which clearly had "sheared off" ("NTSB to Examine Duck ..."). The suspect wheel and axle assembly were shipped to an NTSB lab on the East Coast for further study while local investigators reviewed RTD Seattle's records and interviewed its mechanics and drivers. Other agency personnel did the same at RTDI headquarters Missouri.
The NTSB would take almost 14 months to complete its investigation and issue a report. It traced the history of Duck 6, which had been built by Ride the Ducks International in 2005 using a 1945 General Motors DUKW chassis that was cut in the middle and lengthened by 15 inches. A new hull was built over the extended chassis, with 10-gauge steel at its bottom and 12-gauge steel at its sides, reinforced by both interior steel framing and exterior steel ribs. It was designed to accommodate 36 passengers and a driver, which is precisely what it was carrying on the day of the collision.
Duck 6 had four-wheel drive and an automotive-style, power-assisted hydraulic steering system. Power to the front wheels and two of the four rear wheels came from a 1992 General Motors engine. The investigation focused on the left front axle assembly and its history, and in its report, issued on November 15, 2016, the NTSB noted:
"Steering components had disconnected from the left front wheel and hub assembly, with the drag link separated from the steering arm and a broken bracket at the link and arm connection. The entire left front wheel, brake, and hub assembly was separated from the axle ... The left front axle housing had fractured in a tapered area of the housing near where it connected to the steering knuckle. One end remained with the left front wheel and hub assembly, and the opposite end remained inside the axle housing. On the bottom of the housing, in the tapered area, the axle had been modified with a small metal tab, measuring approximately 1 inch by 2 inches, welded to span the taper" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 13-14).
(The NTSB illustration of the front axle assembly in the column to the left is useful in understanding these findings.)
An examination of Ride the Ducks International records showed that as early as 2004 a weakness in the tapered area of the front axle of the lengthened Ducks had been recognized, and the small metal strengthening tabs had been added, including to Duck 6, starting in 2005. The NTSB determined that the failure of the tab was most likely due to poor welding, but also found that the tab alone would provide insufficient strength even if welded properly. The agency concluded that "the 2004 modification that RTDI made to the axle housings on its stretch APVs [amphibious passenger vehicles] was poorly executed and provided no long-term benefit in preventing future axle failures" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 43).
RTDI had become aware of this inadequacy in 2013 and had issued a service bulletin to all its customers, calling for a much more extensive strengthening of the vulnerable part. In perhaps the most damning finding of the report, the NTSB concluded:
"RTD Seattle did not complete the work recommended in RTDI service bulletin SB-00-14-13, which concerned a repair modification intended to avoid axle fractures. By not acting on SB-00-14-13, RTD Seattle left vehicles unrepaired and operating for over 18 months with a known safety defect that could result in axle failure" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 43).
Central to NTSB investigations is the duty to determine the proximate cause of accidents and to make recommendations to avoid similar occurrences. The probable-cause finding of the agency's report was succinct:
"[T]he probable cause of the Seattle, Washington, crash was the mechanical failure, due to improper manufacturing by Ride the Ducks International (vehicle manufacturer) and inadequate maintenance by Ride the Ducks of Seattle (operator), of the left front axle housing of the stretch amphibious passenger vehicle (APV) DUCK 6, which resulted in loss of vehicle control" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 54).
The investigation also concluded that the deaths and the severity of injuries suffered by those on the NSCC coach were due in significant part to the Duck's "structural incompatibility with the motorcoach, causing intrusion into the motorcoach sidewall, windows, and interior passenger compartment" ("Amphibious Passenger Vehicle ...," 54). The body of Duck 6 was made of relatively heavy reinforced steel. The left corner of its high, angled prow struck the coach at an angle that allowed it to easily pierce the larger vehicle's relatively weak sidewall near the level of the windows, then tear a 19-foot gash along its length that penetrated into the passenger compartment. Those who were killed and severely injured had no chance to escape.
It should be noted that the NTSB concluded that both Duck 6 driver Bishop and the coach driver were entirely blameless.
Within days of the tragedy, the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission issued an emergency order suspending RTD Seattle's operations pending an investigation and inspections of 20 of its vehicles. The company later admitted to 159 critical safety violations and agreed to pay $220,000 in penalties before resuming operations. Ride the Ducks of Seattle did return to service, but the Ducks no longer crossed the Aurora Bridge. As of March 2019, there had been no further serious incidents involving the still-popular tours.
In 2018, RTDI and RTD Seattle agreed to pay $8.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by three severely injured plaintiffs and the family of one of those killed. An earlier suit filed by the parents of the last victim to die, Kim Ha Ram, was dismissed by a federal judge in October 2016. The dismissal was due to a peculiarity of Washington's wrongful-death statute, which permits parents to sue for damages for the death of a child only if they were dependent on the child for support and resident in the United States at the time of the death. The restrictions also applied to siblings of the deceased. Kim Ha Ram's parents were neither financially dependent on their child nor resident in the U.S. Despite its seeming unfairness, this limitation, which dated to 1917, had withstood repeated attacks in the courts and attempts to have the legislature remove it from the statute books. Finally, on April 26, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed an amendment to the law. It allows parents or siblings, regardless of financial dependency or residency, to sue for the loss of a child or sibling, but only if the deceased was not survived by a spouse, children, stepchildren, or a state-registered domestic partner.
An additional 40 plaintiffs, both victims and family members, filed suit against RTDI, RTD Seattle, the city of Seattle, and the state of Washington. Following a trial that lasted almost four months, on February 7, 2019, a King County Superior Court jury, after deliberating for nearly 11 days, reached its verdict. The jurors exonerated the city and state, but found that the plaintiffs' damages were caused by the combined negligence of RTDI and RTD Seattle. The total amount awarded to the 40 plaintiffs was $123 million, with RTDI determined to be approximately 70 percent at fault and RTD Seattle 30 percent. The jury also determined the amounts of awards to individual plaintiffs, which ranged from $40,000 to $25 million. It was reported that most or all of the damages would be paid by the two defendants' insurers.
After their requests for a new trial were denied, on March 4, 2019, attorneys for both companies filed notices of appeal. To ensure that funds would be available to pay the verdict if the appeals were denied, the defendants were required to post with the court three bonds totaling $133,819,060.67, representing the verdict amount and interest anticipated to accrue during the appeals process, which was expected to take several years.
In April 2019 a young German woman, Carolin Scholz, a Duck passenger badly injured in the wreck, received a $7 million settlement from RTDI and Ride the Ducks Seattle. Contemporaneous with that settlement, attorneys for the two companies announced that they were withdrawing their appeal of the February verdict. One month later, the Duck driver, Eric Bishop, settled his claims against RTDI for $2 million. In his first interview since the horrific event, Bishop expressed the belief that as tragic as it was, it could have been much worse. Had the Duck not collided with the bus, Bishop said, "We would've careened right off (of the bridge). Those five souls gave their lives for 37 more" ("'It's Usually About the Bridge'" ...).