- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - State regulators have filed a formal complaint against a Seattle tour company after one of its amphibious vehicles swerved into an oncoming charter bus last week, killing five people and injuring dozens of others.

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission filed the complaint late Tuesday, a day after it suspended operations of the repurposed military “duck boats” owned by Ride the Ducks of Seattle until an investigation of the accident is complete.

The complaint by commission staff was expected. It alleges that at least one of the company’s vehicles, “Duck 6,” was operated in an unsafe manner.

“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 complaint says, noting that until the commission’s staff completes a full investigation of the company’s safety practices, the “scope of potential safety issues cannot be established.”

The complaint, which will be presented during a commission hearing Thursday, 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, 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. More than 50 people were taken to hospitals, and 10 remained hospitalized as of Wednesday.

During Monday’s meeting of the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, state investigators said it appeared that despite a service bulletin Ride the Ducks International had issued in 2013, the Seattle affiliate had not repaired axles on any of its vehicles.

Brian Tracey, owner of Ride the Ducks of Seattle, said earlier this week that he agreed with keeping the boats parked pending the inspections, but he did not address whether he had known of the 2013 bulletin before the crash. Phone and email messages left with Tracey’s spokesman Wednesday were not returned.

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 allow “Truck Duck” vehicles, which have a different chassis and axle system than the “stretch duck” vehicle involved in the Sept. 24 accident, to return to the road within 30 days if they pass a regulatory inspection.

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 potential failure of the front axle housing assembly on 57 vehicles in service around the country, and 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.

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