Two Ride the Ducks employees describe reporting concerns about maintenance and safety of the amphibious touring vehicles in the days, and even years, ahead of the fatal 2015 crash on Seattle's Aurora Bridge.
In testimony revealed in court documents, driver Sarah Chido describes her experience driving the same duck boat that crashed into a tour bus on September 24, 2015, killing five and injuring dozens.
Chido described her experience driving the vehicle on September 20, four days before the crash. She said she stopped the tour after crossing the Aurora Avenue Bridge. She then called mechanics and told them that something was not right.
Chido said the vehicle behaved “weird” as she went over the bumps on the Aurora Bridge, giving her a feeling so strong that it “made the hair on my back stand up.”
Chido described her interaction with a mechanic after she pulled over to call back to base:
“And he (maintenance) was, like, 'What’s wrong?' And I said, 'I don’t know, I just have this really weird feeling.' And he was, like, 'I can’t do anything with a feeling. What’s wrong, you know?' I was, like, 'I don’t know. I have a sense that something under the Duck needs to be looked at.'”
Maintenance ended up sending two people out to take a look under the vehicle.
“How long was he under for?” Chido was asked, according to court documents. “Maybe two minutes,” she responded.
The documents say that by the end of her shift, Chido made a notation about this unusual experience. But she was ultimately told, “Well, we’re just going to have to, you know, basically wait to see what breaks and then we’ll fix it since, you know, we can’t find anything.”
The newly released documents also include testimony from Ride The Ducks Maintenance Manager Joe Hatten. Hatten kept a diary documenting some of his frustrations working for the company, and in an excerpt from 2013 he lays out that his department was severely understaffed.
Hatten noted in his diary that the duck boat fleet in Branson, Missouri had 17 vehicles, the same number that Seattle had in 2013. Yet Hatten noted Branson employed 10 mechanics, while Seattle had six.
Hatten wrote in his diary that he was accused of causing Ride The Ducks revenue to fall because of a few ducks being down, prompting Hatten to bring up his concerns about staffing.
Hatten said he told his superiors that “Without a solid maintenance program, properly staffed, it is just a matter of time before something really bad happens. I (Hatten) stated that if someone dies in an accident with one of our Ducks due to a mechanical issue that was overlooked by one of our mechanics due to time constraints, exhaustion or whatever, that the mechanic and I would burn and that no one in the corporate office would take the fall. Brian (Tracey, Ride The Ducks Owner) said the whole company would burn.”
Ride The Ducks, bus crash on Aurora Bridge
By 2014, the situation worsened. In January of that year, Hatten wrote, “No one in the corporate management buys into, understands, or knows shit about what I am charged to do and how hard our mechanics work. Nor do they understand why our mechanics quit; it eludes them as to why anyone would want to leave this job. To that all I have to say is it is pretty apparent…..simply getting a pay check isn’t enough, when you are doing the work of 10 mechanics with 7 and they are exhausted. A workload of 10 men is not lessened by changing the schedule or moving 7 mechanics around on a schedule or working them on split shifts…the damn workload is the same….enough for 10 mechanics. I give up.”
In March 2014, Hatten wrote, “My mechanics are on the verge of walking out in a form of mutiny as a result of the staffing shortages, work load, etc. and I am at a loss as to how to avert it.”
Hatten wrote in the diary that ownership later admitted it was short staffed in the maintenance department.
Ride The Ducks spends about $1.4 million annually on maintenance, according to the company. Ride The Ducks also said it has expanded the size of its maintenance staff each year since 2012.
“The reality is that the failure of the axle on Sept. 24, 2015 could not have been prevented by a larger maintenance staff – the accident was caused by a design flaw by the vehicle manufacturer, Ride the Ducks International," a spokesperson for Ride The Ducks wrote in a statement. "To suggest that the failure was due to routine maintenance is intentionally misleading."
According to the Washington Utilities and Trade Commission, Ride The Ducks Seattle reported $9.6 million in gross revenue in 2014, the year before the horrific crash.
The testimony from Chido and Hatten is revealed in a legal motion filed by an attorney representing victims of the 2015 crash.
In September 2016, after Ride the Ducks was fined following the crash, Ride The Ducks owner Brian Tracey responded.
"We don't mind the scrutiny," said Tracey. "As far as I'm concerned, they could come in every other week. What it does for us, is it makes us be at the top of our game because this is the thing that's most important to me, is the safety of these vehicles."