Matthew R. Devlin of Catskill, N.Y., admitted he was using his cellphone while he was responsible for steering the tugboat, which was moving a barge, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. He said he had just learned of complications in surgery his son was undergoing in an Albany, N.Y., hospital.
The barge crashed into a Ride the Ducks boat, sinking it. A teenage girl and young man, both part of a Hungarian church group, were killed.
"I got news that my son had gone 8 minutes without oxygen, and I didn't know what that meant. The only connection I had was my cellphone and I used that, and I really wish I hadn't," a tearful Devlin said. "I really wish I could take it all back."
Devlin faces 37 to 46 months in prison for misconduct by a ship operator causing death. He is to be sentenced in November.
A federal investigation found Devlin bore the most blame for the collision. But investigators said a mechanic failed to replace a radiator cap properly on the duck boat, causing a steam leak that led the crew to believe, wrongly, there was a fire and to come to a full stop in the middle of the river.