- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Attorneys for a Seattle tour company involved in a deadly crash promised Thursday that there will be full cooperation into the investigation of an accident that killed five people last week.

And if the repurposed military “duck boats” are ultimately returned to the road, they will no longer use the bridge that was the site of the crash, the attorneys said.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission held a brief hearing to give attorneys for Ride the Ducks of Seattle an opportunity to speak to the commission, just days after it suspended operations of the repurposed military duck boats until an investigation by commission staff was completed.

Patricia Buchanan, attorney for Ride the Ducks of Seattle, noted that half of the fleet of amphibious vehicles are “Truck Duck” vehicles, which have a different manufacturer, chassis and axle system than the “stretch duck” vehicle involved in the Sept. 24 accident.

In a joint stipulation filed Wednesday by commission staff and Ride the Ducks of Seattle, both parties said that if possible, their objective is to return the truck vehicles to the road within 30 days if they pass a regulatory inspection.

Buchanan told the commission that Ride the Ducks of Seattle owner Brian Tracey has invited inspection of all of the vehicles “to ensure and satisfy this commission that Ride the Ducks is operating safely in pursuant to all guidelines.”

Tracey takes the matter before the commission “very, very seriously,” Buchanan said. “He’s cooperated fully, he will continue to cooperate fully, as will the entire staff,” she said.

On Tuesday, commission staff filed a formal complaint against the company by late Tuesday, alleging that at least one of the company’s vehicles, “Duck 6,” was operated in an unsafe manner. The complaint says that an area of concern is federal investigators’ contention that that the duck boat involved in the crash did not have an axle repair that was recommended two years ago for such vehicles.

Authorities have been looking into whether axle failure caused the crash. The vehicle’s front left axle was found sheared off, but it’s not clear if it broke before the collision or during it. The National Transportation Safety Board has said it could take a year to determine the cause of the crash.

Four international college students died at the scene of the Sept. 24 crash, and a fifth - a 20-year-old woman - died Sunday. They were among about 45 students and staff from North Seattle College who were on the charter bus when the tourist-carrying duck boat swerved into it on the Aurora Bridge, a six-lane span with no median barrier.

Buchanan said that shortly after the accident, Tracey met with city officials he would no longer use the Aurora Bridge on the tours. “They will be using a different route,” she said.

David Danner, chairman of the commission, said that public safety is key as the commission considers the joint stipulation seeking to return the “Truck Duck” vehicles to the road in 30 days.

“If we can find that the operations of the vehicles are safe, then of course we will allow them back on the roads. But our priority is public safety,” he said. “And so I am not prepared to do anything today or in the future that will allow these vehicles on the road if I am not satisfied that they can operate safely.”

The commission set a status hearing for Nov. 3, when they could make a determination on that request.

Atlanta-based Ride the Ducks International refurbished the 1945 Army surplus vehicle involved in the crash and sold it to Ride the Ducks of Seattle, an independently owned licensee, in 2005. It said in a written statement Monday that it warned its customers in 2013 about the potential failure of the front axle housing assembly on 57 vehicles in service around the country. It recommended specific inspections and repairs to reinforce the housing.

Its other affiliates and licensees - in Philadelphia; Stone Mountain Park, Georgia; Branson, Missouri; and Newport, Kentucky - had all complied, the company said.

After the hearing, Buchanan said she could not yet speak to whether Tracey was aware of the 2013 warning.

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