PHILADELPHIA (AP/KMOV) -- A St. Louis man and his daughter are lucky to be alive after a tour boat they were riding in was struck and sunk by a barge in the Delaware River, spilling them and other passengers into the murky waters.
Kevin Grace, 50, of St. Louis, said he had less than a minute to get a lifejacket on his 9-year-old daughter before the barge hit.
"We had 45 seconds to try to get the life jackets on our kids," he told The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. "Everyone panicked, rushing to the front of the boat."
Sandy Cohen looked up from the deck of a stalled tourist boat to see an enormous barge approaching fast, and it was clear it wasn't going to stop. Then came the screams.
Over the next few seconds of terror, she and other passengers fumbled to put on life jackets and ran for cover as best they could. Next came a crash, the boat flipped over, and 37 passengers were plunged into the Delaware River.
Cohen came to the surface, clinging to the life jacket she had managed to snag seconds before. A Hungarian teenager on the tour was hanging onto the jacket too.
Two fellow passengers in the U.S. for the same language class as the teenager have not been found. Hope faded for finding them alive Thursday. The search was continuing for the pair, a 16-year-old girl and 20-year-old man, but visibility in the 50-foot-deep water was too poor to send divers in.
The boat had no history of mechanical problems before it caught fire, said Chris Herschend, president of Ride the Ducks, the Norcross, Ga.-based company that owns it. The captain appears to have followed all proper procedures during the emergency, Herschend said at a news conference. The company hoped to raise the boat to the surface soon, he said.
It started out as just an inconvenience when smoke started to roll out of the boat's engine as it entered the water, Cohen, 67, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday from her home in Durham, N.C.
The tour guide said a tug boat would be on its way to carry passengers back to shore, she recalled. She was on the phone with her husband to let him know she'd be late, but the call ended abruptly as other passengers screamed.
"Someone said, 'Oh my God, there's a barge coming, and it doesn't look like it's stopping,"' she said.
She grabbed for a lifejacket from a hook above her seat as the boat was struck and started to sink. She was quickly underwater, grabbing the jacket with one hand as her feet tangled up with those of others.
When she surfaced, she said, she realized the girl was also hanging onto the jacket.
"I just told her, 'Don't let go,' and made sure we both stayed calm," she said.
They were rescued five to 10 minutes later.
"It was a very harrowing experience. It was surreal," Cohen said.
The Hungarian group on the tour was hosted by a Methodist church in suburban Philadelphia. A Hungarian consular official picked up two women and two teenagers from the home of the church's youth group leader and took them to a meeting with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who was outlining the city's response and "expressing our condolences," said Maura Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the mayor.
"Our prayers for comfort are with you, youth group, leaders, and Hungarian friends, in this difficult time," said a statement on the church's website.
While crews searched for the missing, the tour company said Thursday that it was suspending operations nationwide, a day after it suspended its Philadelphia tours. It also operates tours in San Francisco, Atlanta, Newport, Ky., and Branson, Mo. A Ride the Ducks operation in Seattle is independently owned and remained open for business Thursday.
The six-wheeled duck boat, which can travel seamlessly on land and water, had driven into the river Wednesday afternoon and suffered a mechanical problem and the small fire, officials said. It was struck about 10 minutes later by the tugboat-pushed barge.
The 37 people aboard were tossed overboard, police said. Most were plucked from the river by other vessels in a frantic rescue operation that happened in full view of Penn's Landing, just south of the Ben Franklin Bridge connecting Philadelphia to New Jersey.
Ten people were taken to a hospital; two declined treatment, and eight were treated and released, Hahnemann University Hospital spokeswoman Coleen Cannon said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it planned to try to obtain any radio recordings, any possible mayday calls, photographs from witnesses or people aboard and other evidence as its investigators remain in Philadelphia over the next several days.
The Coast Guard received a transmission over an emergency channel around the time of the collision, Capt. Todd Gatlin said, but no voices or other recognizable sounds could be discerned. Gatlin likened the transmission to radio interference, but said that discovering its origin would be part of the NTSB's investigation.
Another passenger on the duck boat said she heard the captain calling for help -- and moments later she was under water.
"The last thing I remember hearing was (the duck boat captain) on the radio saying, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa!"' said Tina Rosebrook, 30, of Davidson, N.C., who was touring Philadelphia's historic sites with her 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece.
Rosebrook said there was less than a minute from the time the barge was spotted until the crash. She got lifejackets on the girls, but not herself, and she ended up underwater against the bow of the barge.
"I can feel the barge kind of on top of me," she said. "I'm feeling it with my hands."
She came to the surface and found a lifejacket floating nearby. By then, she said, the girls were safely floating with other passengers. Police helped them get out of the water within a few minutes.
Ride the Ducks has been in Philadelphia since 2003. Passengers board the duck boats near Independence Hall and are driven on a tour of the Old City neighborhood. Afterward they ride into the Delaware River from a ramp south of the Ben Franklin Bridge.
As of 2000, there were more than 250 refurbished amphibious vehicles in service nationwide among various operators, according to the NTSB.
Some duck boats are military personnel carriers dating to World War II that have been restored and reconditioned for peacetime use. Known by their original acronym as DUKWs, they were first introduced in the tourism market in 1946 in the Wisconsin Dells, where about 120 of the vessels now operate.
In Pennsylvania, agencies ranging from the Coast Guard to Philadelphia's streets department have a hand in regulating the duck boats.
The Coast Guard performs annual inspections of the vessels' seaworthiness, and because they travel city streets they are also registered with the state Department of Transportation.
Inspection records for the sunken duck boat have been turned over to the NTSB, Gatlin said.
A duck boat sank at Hot Springs, Ark., in May 1999, killing 13 of the 21 people aboard after its bilge pump failed. The NTSB blamed inadequate maintenance and recommended that duck boats have backup flotation devices. In June 2002, four people were killed when an amphibious tour boat, the Lady Duck, sank in the Ottawa River near Canada's Parliament.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Maryclaire Dale, JoAnn Loviglio, Kathy Matheson, Randy Pennell and Michael Rubinkam in Philadelphia; Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa.; and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)