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Four people, including a mother and two children on a Sunday afternoon outing, drowned yesterday when an amphibious tour vehicle with a history of capsizing sank in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill.

Gatineau police said they did not know what caused the Lady Duck, a combination boat and tour bus, to sink.

The vehicle is one of several that operate in the National Capital Region in the summer. The rides are popular with tourists, who take the vehicle through the city streets and then onto the river for scenic views of some of the capital's attractions.

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The Lady Duck, which is owned by Amphibus-Lady Dive Inc., was under investigation after nearly sinking last summer, Normand Breton, lead investigator with the Transportation Safety Board, said yesterday.

It was ordered out of service for a couple of weeks after it grounded on the Ottawa side of the river and tipped over on July 1, 2001.

The safety board's investigation was to conclude this summer. There were no injuries in that case.

Last night Transport Minister David Collenette issued a statement, expressing condolences to the families and friends of the victims.

"We are co-operating fully with the Transportation Safety Board's investigation," he said. "Should safety deficiencies be identified, Transport Canada will take immediate action."

It wasn't known whether yesterday's sinking was related to the previous incident, Mr. Breton said. The safety board has ordered all vessels run by the company out of service, he said.

Amphibus-Lady Dive Inc. refused comment last night.

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Yesterday, the captain issued a distress call to a marina just metres from the scene and ordered passengers to put on life jackets.

"Most did," Mr. Breton said. "Some didn't. The boat sank within minutes. I would even say within seconds. It's sad but true."

Police said 10 tourists and two crew members were aboard yesterday afternoon. Most managed to swim to shore or were fished from the fast-flowing waters by other boaters.

But a 43-year-old mother and her two daughters, aged 13 and 5, were trapped in the boat. The bodies were submerged for at least two hours before they could be recovered by Ottawa police divers working with emergency rescue workers from Gatineau, the Quebec community on the other side of the river.

The woman's husband was among the passengers rescued, police said. The Montreal family was on a weekend sightseeing trip.

The fourth victim was a 66-year-old woman from Saint-Agathe, Que.

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The names of the dead were not released.

Christiane Bertrand was close to the dock, heard the cry for help and saw the craft going down.

"All you could see when it went off the dock was the little thing going down," she told CTV News. "It went under water in seconds."

"We were able to save most of them except for four persons," Gatineau Police Lieutenant Yves Martel said. "It seemed that it sank quite rapidly."

He said the Lady Duck was returning to the launching ramp at the Gatineau Marina when it went down in deep water. It was about 200 metres from shore when it sank.

Although Gatineau and Ottawa fire firefighters raced equipment to the scene, neither department has a dive team.

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"Our guys were trying to dive without scuba equipment, diving as far as the vehicle, but not long enough to perform a rescue," said Tom Blondin of the Ottawa department.

It was thought that the woman and her two children were buckled in and unable to get free. The captain of the Lady Duck is in hospital in shock, CTV reported.

"The victims were wearing life jackets," Mr. Breton said. "They were trapped inside."

The craft was near the end of its tour and returning to port when it began taking in water over the hood of the vehicle into the cabin, Mr. Breton said.

Private boats from the marina went to rescue passengers, some of whom were able to swim to shore.

Boat safety regulations are not as strict for vessels that carry 12 or fewer passengers, such as the Lady Duck.

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Such smaller craft require a vehicle licence and a small-craft licence from Transport Canada, the agency that governs marine, rail and air transportation.

It was Transport Canada that inspected the Lady Duck and allowed the vehicle to return to service after the incident last summer.

John McLees, who was boating nearby, was on the scene within minutes, but the Lady Duck was already gone.

Mr. McLees helped pull passengers off the Lady Duck the first time it nearly sank last July. "Within a couple of months the same truck is back in the water again, you know."

Transport Canada will lead the investigation, Lt. Martel said.

He said it might be a day or two before the vehicle can be pulled from the river to give investigators their first opportunity to look for clues to why it went down so quickly.

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The sinking comes just four months after Transport Minister David Collenette said a new training program focusing on safety aboard small passenger vessels would be implemented.

That program was in response to a sinking two years ago. Two schoolchildren drowned when their glass-bottomed tour boat went under in choppy waves in Georgian Bay off Tobermory, Ont., on June 16, 2000.

An inquest into the sinking of the True North II produced 61 recommendations after hearing that the craft was barely seaworthy despite nearly 30 years of federal inspections by eight Transport Canada officials.

An inquest jury suggested last year that Transport Canada review its mandate to ensure it serves "the Canadian public, rather than the ship owner" and adopt a "safety culture" to ensure that inspections are considered "safety audits."

Wade Simmons and Henrike Foerster, both 12, drowned when the True North, carrying 13 Grade 7 students, sank.

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