One year later: Ride the Ducks crash survivors still live with emotional scars

Five students were killed when the Ride the Ducks vehicle crossed the center line of the bridge and slammed head on into a bus carrying North Seattle Colleges students. KOMO News photo

SEATTLE - Saturday marks one-year since the deadly crash involving Ride the Ducks and a charter bus full of exchange students on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle.

Five students were killed when the Ride the Ducks vehicle crossed the center line of the bridge and slammed head on into a bus carrying North Seattle Colleges students.

On Friday, the college thanked first responders who jumped into action that day. The school also dedicated a "World Community Garden" on campus, which includes five benches and a stone plaque to honor the students who were killed. They were from Austria, Indonesia, China and Japan.

"We are grateful for the lives they lived, for the love that they shared, the hearts that they touched and the lessons they had and continue to teach us," said North Seattle College Presiden. Warren Brown.

The school hopes the new landmark will be a spot students can use to pause and reflect and remember those victims.

"I just look OK from the outside," said Mazda Hutapea, and exchange student from Indonesia who survived the crash. "But, people don't know what's inside my mind."

Many students who survived the crash are back in class now, but are still scarred by that day.

For the crash survivors, the memories of that day are still vivid and the pain is still part of an everyday struggle.

"Mentally, I'm not quite sure if I'me ready to face the fact that a year ago I had this major accident that changed my life," said Hutapea.

"Next thing you know, you hear this loud bang," said Rhonda Cooley, who was a passenger on the Ride the Ducks vehicle. "I hear people screaming, I'm screaming for Jo and my friends and I look off the the left and I see them laying there."

On Sept. 24, 2015, Cooley along with friend JoAnn Gerke climbed aboard the Ride the Ducks tour with two other friends.

"We were goofing around, and the duck driver was animated and awesome, pointing out neat things about Seattle," said Cooley.

The couple from Wisconsin remembers halfway across the Aurora Bridge, something went wrong.

"It's like slow motion, you're driving, and you're watching as it just comes into crossing traffic, crossing traffic and we just, boom we hit this bus," said Cooley.

That bus was carrying international students from North Seattle College to an orientation event downtown.

"One of the moments that strike me a lot was when I first got up from the accident and I saw myself laying on the ground," said Phuong Dinh, who was a passenger on the charter bus.

The three women are among the dozens of people injured on the bridge that day, now suing Ride the Ducks Seattle.

They're left with more than just emotional scars from the collision.

"The duck boat actually rolled onto my left leg," said Gerke. "I was bruised from my toes to my chest."

"I had a fractured pelvis, broken ribs," said Cooley. "I'm physically less than half the person I that I used to be."

The months since the crash have been filled with surgeries, doctors visits, physical therapy and a realization that life will never be the same.

"For me this has taken, my career is over," said Cooley. "I'm grieving the loss of my life as I knew it."

Survivors are filled with grief and anger.

"Why has it happened to me? Why me? I didn't do anything wrong," said Dihn. "I'm angry at myself, I'm angry at everything else."

Much of that anger is directed at Ride the Ducks Seattle and a possible cause of the crash.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board said the left front axle on the vehicle that failed was part of a 2013 notice which alerted owners of a modification to strengthen the axle to prevent fractures.

There is no indication that modification was ever done.

"The rolled the dice and chose not to repair their equipment and how many lives they've affected because of it, it makes you mad," said Gerke.

Some of the lawsuits not only name Ride the Ducks, but also the city and the state, saying they failed to properly maintain the Aurora Bridge and should not have allowed the extra-wide tourist vehicles on it.

Within hours of the crash, state and city officials vowed to make changes.

"There are safety questions we've got to answer," said Mayor Murray in a Sept. 25, 2015, news conference.

"That's definitely something we're going to take a hard look at in the coming days at weeks," Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly said in a Sept. 25, 2015, meeting.

"I stay out of that center lane when I'm driving on it as much as I can because it makes me nervous," said Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien during a Sept. 25, 2015, interview.

"Now its time to just thoughtfully put our heads together as a city as a state and as a neighborhood and a community and figure out how to move forward," state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D- Seattle, said in a Sept. 25, 2015, interview.

So far, it appears no changes have been made or even proposed for the Aurora Bridge. City officials said they cannot comment because of pending litigation.

The bridge still brings back painful memories for Dihn.

"I've been on that bridge twice," said Dihn. "It's just like 'bam' everything just came back to my memory, and I can hear everyone yelling, every noise of that."

Dihn will return to school next week, slowly at first while sill going though physical therapy.

"I have to move on, anger cannot make me stronger," she said.

She doesn't know how long she'll be in a brace or if more surgeries are in her future but, that's not stopping her from making plans.

"I would love to play basketball again, I love basketball," said Dihn. "I would love to go traveling."

She might never fully recover from the crash, but she'll continue to share her story while looking towards a brighter future.

"I want to be one of the victims who stand up and share my story to the community with anybody that's interested in my story," said Dihn.

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