Duck Boat Tragedy: Three years since Duck Boat capsized on Table Rock Lake
BRANSON, Mo. (KY3) - Monday marks three years since a Ride the Ducks boat on Table Rock Lake capsized during a storm, sinking and killing 17 people on board.
On July 19, 2018, a Stretch Duck 7 duck boat with 31 people on board capsized and sank in stormy weather near Branson, Missouri.
Sixteen passengers, including nine from the same family and one crew member driving the boat, drowned that night, which became one of the deadliest boating accidents in United States history.
In their initial assessment, authorities blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength. The duck boat sank under high waves while winds around the area reached up to 70 miles per hour that day.
Investigators say Ride the Ducks had plenty of warning about the severe weather, but the boat still launched more than 20 minutes after a thunderstorm warning was issued for Table Rock Lake.
THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS
Three years later, people are still pushing for answers and working to come to terms with what happened.
On Friday, the Missouri Attorney General and Stone County Prosecutor filed 63 criminal charges against three employees on duty when tragedy struck. Captain Kenneth Scott McKee and two supervisors, Curtis Lanham and Charles Baltzell, all face a slate of felonies that include at least 17 criminal charges each.
Charges range from first-degree involuntary manslaughter to first-degree endangering the welfare of a child. The new charges come seven months after a federal judge dismissed charges filed by federal prosecutors, concluding that they did not have jurisdiction.
“There was a severe weather event already taking place. Based on his training and experience, he should have never gone in the water that day. There were also folks the GM and the operations officer who should have known better too, and the consequences here were incredibly tragic,” said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
An affidavit from a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant accuses McKee of failing to exercise his duties as a licensed captain by taking the Duck Boat onto the lake in stormy conditions.
“We are reviewing the charges. Expect not guilty pleas will be entered and will continue vigorously represent Mr. McKee,” J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller, who represent the captain, said in a statement Friday.
In January, Missouri U.S. Senators Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley reintroduced federal legislation to improve the safety of duck boats. The bill would require the use of life jackets and equipping all duck boats to be more buoyant during emergency flooding.
“These common-sense safety measures, which are long overdue and need to go into effect immediately, will help prevent an incident like this from ever happening again,” said Sen. Blunt.
The U.S. Senate passed the bill during it latest go-around, but legislation has not made it through the House.
REMEMBERING THE TRAGEDY
For emergency responders, the scene that unfolded at Table Rock Lake remains vivid in their minds.
“Huge waves coming in, hitting that rock face and just going up that rock face. I’m just like ‘Wow.’ I’m like ‘I can see why a Duck boat sank,’” Southern Stone County Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Mike Moore recalled.
“It was chaos,” Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said. “One of the hardest things in the first 20 minutes there was trying to grasp ‘Where’s all 30 of our people that were on this duck?’ It took a while to understand that they’d drown.”
Fire crews, police officers, paramedics, and state troopers flooded to the docking area of the Showboat Branson Belle, where the Ride the Ducks boat was supposed to get back on land, nearly 150 feet from where it capsized.
“In almost 30 years of law enforcement, that was probably one of the most traumatic events I have been involved in,” Rader recalled.” I had a deputy on [the Belle] who jumped in and helped save people and dragged the deceased out of the water. He’ll forever be affected by that. The emotional impact it made on everyone in this area, that tragedy will never be forgotten.”
Tia Coleman and her nephew are among the survivors, but she lost several family members in the accident.
“Keep us in prayer. We’re going to need it,” Coleman recalled days after the tragedy.
Attorneys for Coleman say she was disappointed when federal charges against the captain and attraction supervisors were dismissed last year, but now has renewed hope that the new charges filed by the state will bring justice for her and all the families impacted by the tragedy.
RESEARCH AND FINDINGS
Duck boats, like the one that capsized near Branson, were originally designed for the military, specifically to transport troops and supplies in World War II. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles for tours that begin on land before going into water.
In November 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board released a “Safety Recommendation Report” on the accident. The report mentions that the Coast Guard had repeatedly ignored safety recommendations that could have made tourist duck boats safer and potentially prevented the tragedy.
The report is similar to one issued in 1999 after a deadly accident involving an amphibious vehicle in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Thirteen people were killed in that accident.
According to the report, the NTSB repeatedly urged the Coast Guard to require upgrades for the boats to stay afloat when flooded and to remove barriers to escape, such as canopies. The report found that a fixed canopy and closed side curtain impeded passenger escape, likely causing more deaths.
“Lives could have been saved, and the Stretch Duck 7 accident could have been prevented had previously issued safety recommendations been implemented,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in a November 2019 statement.
The NTSB says it recommended changes to 30 duck boat operators several years ago, but only one has made the recommended improvements.
In April 2020, the NTSB released findings of its investigation into the sinking of the Ride the Ducks vessel. Following the investigation, the U.S. Coast Guard agreed that canopies and side curtains should be removed from the duck boats, according to documents.
A lieutenant says the Coast Guard issued guidance in 2000, after an NTSB recommendation, urging inspectors and vessel owners to evaluate canopy design and installation. The guidance also recommended inspections of the design, sets, deck rails, windshields and windows “to ensure the overall arrangement did not restrict the ability of passengers to escape.”
An unrelated, internal investigation performed by the National Weather Service found that local meteorologists followed procedure necessary to ensure public safety.
LOOKING BACK AND AHEAD
Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney for survivor Tia Coleman, hopes the recommendations handed down by the NTSB in 2019 will finally be adopted by the Coast Guard.
“It is rare for one federal agency to really go after another. I was struck by how strongly the NTSB indicated that the Coast Guard just had not done the job they were supposed to do, which is protecting passengers and making safety first,” said Mongeluzzi.
Mongeluzzi says he and Coleman plan to meet with Coast Guard officials in the future to lobby for stricter laws and regulations.
“It was a very frustrating and emotional day for Tia Coleman,” said Mongeluzzi. “Her family would be alive if the duck boat industry had done their job and if the Coast Guard had done their job. Both of them have the blood of 17 victims here and two in Philadelphia on their hands.”
Ripley Entertainment, Inc., the company that operated duck boat rides in Branson, has settled 31 lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of the accident. The final lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in January 2020.
A new duck boat tour company known as “Branson Duck Tours” is in the works several years after tragedy, but will not open until at least March 2022. The company’s operating manager, Jaredan Braal, says they plan to use amphibious “Hydra-Terra” vehicles for the tours.
Braal said the vehicles are aluminum and their hull is filled with foam. The manufacturing company’s website claims the vehicle is “unsinkable” and has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We are heartbroken about the tragedy that happened there in the past. As we’re bringing this new company, we’re a safety first organization,” Braal said.
Ride The Ducks, however, has not operated in Branson since the tragedy three years ago.
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