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Ride the Ducks boat, bus collide on Seattle bridge killing 4, injuring dozens

Seattle Post-Intelligencer logo Seattle Post-Intelligencer 9/25/2015 By LYNSI BURTON, AND LEVI PULKKINEN, SEATTLEPI.COM STAFF
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Four persons were killed and dozens more injured Thursday after a Ride the Ducks tourist vehicle collided with a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle.

All four of the dead were international students studying at North Seattle College, the school confirmed Thursday evening.

The school said government officials were trying to contact family members.

Fifteen people are in critical condition in various local hospitals, according to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who spoke at a 6 p.m. press conference. In all, Murray said, 51 people were injured seriously enough to be taken to eight area hospitals.

It wasn't immediately clear how Murray's information squared with that released by Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, the leading trauma-treatment facility in the area. About an hour before Murray spoke, a Harborview spokeswoman said six of their eight patients who had initially been listed critical had been upgraded to serious condition.

The cause of the wreck remained unclear, though Seattle police have been investigating whether a mechanical issue on the amphibious Ride the Ducks vehicle may have caused the incident.

Seventeen members of the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to arrive in Seattle on Thursday and take over the investigation.

The crash occurred at 11:13 a.m., blocking all lanes of the bridge. More than 90 firefighters responded to the crash, pulling passengers from the wrecked vehicles.

Police said the Ride the Ducks vehicle was headed north on the bridge as the charter bus was headed south. The two vehicles collided, along with two passenger vehicles. The amphibious vehicle smashed into the driver's side of the bus.

Collision investigators have been looking into witness reports of a possible mechanical issue on the Ride the Ducks vehicle and continued to examine evidence spanning the length of the bridge, according to police.

Brad Volm of Philadelphia, a driver behind the Ride the Ducks vehicle, said the amphibious vehicle swerved in front of him. The left front tire of the duck boat appeared to lock up, and the vehicle swerved into the oncoming charter bus, he said.

"I know there's a strong need for answers, but it's too early to draw any conclusions," Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole said in the evening press conference.

A spokesman from Seattle's China consulate, Ron Chow, said all four deceased were young people who were students at North Seattle College.

A North Seattle College spokeswoman said 45 staff and students were on the charter bus. Seattle Fire Department Lt. Sue Stengl said most of the seriously injured were riding on that bus. The school confirmed the students on board were members of an international program.

Police officers and other officials watch as a Ride the Ducks tourist vehicle is loaded onto a flat-bed tow truck in the late evening Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, after it was involved in a fatal crash with a charter passenger bus earlier in the day in Seattle.

Police officers and other officials watch as a Ride the Ducks tourist vehicle is loaded onto a flat-bed tow truck in the late evening Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, after it was involved in a fatal crash with a charter passenger bus earlier in the day in Seattle.
© Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

Stengl said the "pure immensity of the incident" was the greatest challenge to first responders. Injured were triaged at the scene, with the most severely injured survivors being rushed from the scene by ambulance.

It wasn't clear whether any of the injured were in the two passenger vehicles caught in the wreck.

“We’ve had a terrible tragedy," Murray said. "There’s been a terrible loss of life and several injuries.”

In the immediate hours after the accident, state Route 99 northbound was closed from Western Avenue in Belltown to North 38th Street in Fremont. On the southbound side, the highway was shut down from North 46th Street in Fremont to Raye Street in Queen Anne.

The Aurora Bridge is expected to remain closed for hours. Seattle Department of Transportation Director Scott Kubly said the bridge would be thoroughly inspected before reopening but couldn't offer an estimate of when it might be open again.

Kubly also said SDOT was adjusting traffic-signal intervals at key points around the city, and was working with the U.S. Coast Guard to reduce drawbridge openings on other spans. Those drawbridges remained down throughout the afternoon in an effort to help ease severe traffic but were expected to open again on a limited basis by 7 p.m. Thursday.

He also said King County Metro bus routes were being altered to take passengers along Westlake Avenue North instead of the closed bridge.

"Even in the best scenario, it's going to be extremely difficult to move around the city," Murray said.

North Seattle College administrators called an all-campus meeting Thursday afternoon. Several students lightly injured in the crash were taken to the campus to regroup. One young woman held an ice pack to her face as she walked through campus, visibly shaken by the wreck.

Speaking with KIRO/7 News, Ride the Ducks Seattle president Brian Tracey said he was still gathering information about the crash.

"It's devastating," Tracey said Thursday afternoon. "Safety of our passengers in our No. 1 concern."

Tracey said the company has made its vehicles as safe as possible, with redundant mirrors and cameras, and trains its drivers to be especially cautious on the Aurora Bridge, according to KOMO News. The company said it suspended operations for the rest of the day.

The crash occurred on a busy north-south highway linking the city's center with northwest Seattle. Lanes are particularly narrow on the 83-year-old span, officially named the George Washington Bridge.

About 45,000 vehicles travel on the Aurora Bridge daily, according to the state Department of Transportation. Thursday's collision marks the first fatality on the bridge since 1999, according to crash data from the state Department of Transportation. The data shows 144 crashes on the bridge since 2005, with 18 involving vehicles traveling in opposite directions.

Immediately after the wreck, video from the scene showed passengers being removed on backboards. The majority of people came off the bus without assistance, with many walking to the medics, Stengl said. Firefighters cut through the vehicles to rescue people trapped inside; a half-hour would pass before the fire department could confirm that the injured had been pulled free.

Damage to the tour bus, belonging to Ferndale, Washington-based Bellair Charters, appeared extensive.

Registered nurse Jahna Byer was on a Metro bus when the crash occurred. After the bus stopped for the incident, he and companion Larry Smith walked to the scene to find people collapsing on the roadway after freeing themselves from the wrecked vehicles.

There was "a lot of blood and crying," said Byer, visibly traumatized by the ordeal.

"Glass was everywhere," Smith added. He, too, was shaking as he spoke.

Byer praised the work of first responders at the scene.

"They were so on top (of) everything," she said. "They saved a lot of lives because of it."

Harborview spokeswoman Susan Gregg said the most severely injured patients suffered head injuries. Several sustained facial injuries and cuts.

"We are trying to find family," Gregg said Thursday afternoon. "Some of these patients, we don't know who they are."

North Seattle College President Warren Brown said the students were on their way to Safeco Field for a new-student orientation when the crash occurred.

The bus, Brown said, was carrying about 45 students. College staff was working Thursday afternoon to confirm exactly which students were on the bus involved in the crash.

“Our hearts go out to every student, employee and individual involved in this tragic accident,” Brown said. “At this time, our main focus is to concentrate on the well-being of our students and to notify their families as quickly as possible.”

Students who were able to leave the scene were taken to North Seattle College’s campus, where they were met by counselors and helped to contact their families.

A hotline for families was set up. Those attempting to check on the status of a student can do so by calling 206-934-3672.

Murray said efforts were underway to contact the consulates representing the home countries of foreign students involved in the wreck. He said the Seattle Hotel Association would provide lodging for families of students involved in the crash.

Ride the Ducks uses modified DUKW amphibious vehicles first fielded by the U.S. Army during World War II. The six-wheeled trucks are 31 feet long and eight feet wide, and weigh about six tons. In Seattle, as elsewhere, they’re a popular tourist attraction widely perceived as a traffic hazard by drivers.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission issued Ride the Ducks a satisfactory rating in a 2012 evaluation that examined driver qualifications, employee drug and alcohol testing and vehicle maintenance records.

Bellair Charters reportedly received a satisfactory rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2013, according to the UTC.

Police evaluated the involved drivers for signs of intoxication and did not find evidence of impairment.

Ride the Ducks ceased operation in San Francisco two weeks ago after struggling to accommodate new city rules mandating that tour bus drivers cannot also act as sightseeing narrators for their passengers.

Seattlepi.com reporters Jake Ellison and Daniel DeMay and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Seattlepi.com reporter Lynsi Burton can be reached at 206-448-8381 or lynsiburton@seattlepi.com. Follow Lynsi on Twitter at @LynsiBurton_PI.

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