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Missouri lake disaster in high winds kills 17, raising new safety concerns about duck boats

Missouri lake disaster in high winds kills 17, raising new safety concerns about duck boats
Crews work on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., on July 19 after a tour boat sank. (Southern Stone County Fire Protection District / EPA/Shutterstock)

At least 17 people were killed when an amphibious boat carrying sightseers on a lake sank after encountering high winds and choppy waters, Missouri authorities said Friday.

The disaster began Thursday evening at Table Rock Lake, a popular tourist spot in Missouri’s Ozarks, when a tour company vessel known as a duck boat — which has wheels and can also drive on land — sank while filled with 31 sightseers and crew members. Fewer than half survived, and seven were injured, one seriously, officials said.

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Divers recovered the last four victims’ bodies Friday and found the boat about 80 feet below the surface of the lake, resting on its wheels, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said in a televised news conference.

Rader believed the boat sank because of rough water conditions but asked witnesses with video of the disaster to send it the sheriff’s department as investigators from several agencies, including the National Transportation Safety Board, begin examining what happened.

“This is a huge joint investigation between all of us,” Rader said. “We’re just working together at this time to figure out exactly what did happen.”

In a statement posted on its website, Ride the Ducks, the tour company, said "words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking” and that the business would close “while we support the investigation.”

“We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved and the authorities as they continue with the search and rescue,” the company said.

President Trump offered his condolences. “My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those involved in the terrible boat accident which just took place in Missouri,” Trump tweeted. “Such a tragedy, such a great loss. May God be with you all!”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said “a lot of families" on vacation were affected by the incident. “Our thoughts and prayers right now are with these families that are here,” Parson said at the news conference. “We as a state will do everything within my powers to make sure that they all have the resources here that they need.”

Parson ordered flags in the state to fly at half-staff for the next week.

The dead included nine members of a single family, plus two family members who survived, one of whom was a 13-year-old boy, Parson said. The family was reportedly from Indiana.

The family’s other survivor, Tia Coleman, told a local TV news station, FOX59, that before the boat capsized, the captain said, “don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets — you won’t need them.” Coleman also said that “when it was time to grab them, it was too late, and I believe that a lot of people could have been spared.”

Duck boats — so named as a nod to the boats’ military origins in World War II, when the amphibious DUKW craft were created to ferry U.S. Army troops and supplies — have wheels and can drive on land as well float through the water.

After the war ended, many of the boats were sold as surplus for civilian use and became a popular novelty for water tours across the U.S.

The duck boat’s operator, Ride the Ducks, headquartered in Branson, called itself “the nation’s largest amphibious tour operator and licensor, with a fleet of nearly 100 vehicles in use around the U.S. and Guam carrying nearly 1 million guests annually,” according to a recent version of the company’s website.

An archived version of Ride the Ducks’ said the company had 20 duck boats in the Branson area, but that they were replicas, “built from the ground up under United States Coast Guard (USCG) supervision with the latest in marine safety. … the Ride The Ducks vehicle has patented safety features that no other DUKW-style vehicle has.” The site says some of the duck boats were used as rescue vehicles in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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Asked for comment about the company’s statements, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard said the agency was “working to get information for you as soon as we can.”

The ill-fated duck boat entered the water Thursday night as a storm was arriving in the area. The National Weather Service in nearby Springfield, Mo., issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., warning of possible winds exceeding 60 mph, and the first 911 calls about the sinking came just before 7:10 p.m., according to the Kansas City Star. It’s not clear yet what time the boat left shore.

In video obtained by local media, taken by an onlooker from a nearby showboat, two duck boats are seen struggling in high winds and heavy waves. Both had canopies covering their seating areas and appeared to have windows or transparent sheathings covering their sides, closing in the passengers but allowing them to see outside.

“They should have never come out here with them things,” a man watching the boats can be heard saying aboard the showboat, the Branson Belle, which was floating near the two duck boats; the showboat was much larger and comparatively undisturbed by the waves. “No,” a woman agreed.

The lead duck boat in the video, which was taken by sightseer Jennie Carr from aboard the Branson Belle, managed to power forward through the waves. But the second duck boat struggled to move ahead, the waves repeatedly blasting over its nose, until after a few minutes, the front of the duck boat dipped under the water.

“Oh, my god,” an onlooker can be heard saying in the video. “It’s sinking.”

The captain of the Branson Belle directed crew members to get life jackets and rope to help rescue passengers from the capsizing duck boat, Carr told the Springfield News-Leader. Passengers also helped with the rescue, Rader said.

But Thursday’s disaster was not the first of its kind.

A former top federal safety official questioned Friday why the watercraft were still in service across the U.S.

“It’s clear to me that this is not a vehicle that should be licensed for commercial purposes to carry that number of people,” said Jim Hall, the former chairman of the NTSB from 1982 to 2001.

Hall was the chairman when the NTSB investigated a similar duck boat disaster on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas in 1999 that left 13 passengers dead when the boat suddenly sank. That duck boat, the Miss Majestic, was built by the U.S. Army in 1944.

Investigators in that incident generally faulted the boat’s safety margins. “DUKWs were not originally designed for passenger service and do not have adequate reserve buoyancy to remain afloat in the event of a breach of watertight integrity,” the report said.

Additionally, passengers in the Arkansas disaster were trapped by a canopy that had been installed over the boat’s open-air seating areas, “contributing to the high loss of life,” the report said, adding that ”all but one of the survivors stated that the canopy was an impediment to their escape.”

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One Arkansas survivor told the safety board: “If you had the cover [canopy] off, everybody would have had a chance. With that cover on, there’s too many people [who] didn’t have a chance because that thing sank so quick.”

The board recommended adding extra buoyancy to duck boats and recommended “the removal of canopies during water operations or installation of a Coast Guard approved canopy” to give passengers a better chance to escape in case of a disaster. The NTSB report also found that the U.S. Coast Guard had no uniform nationwide inspection policy for duck boats.

An archived version of the homepage of Ride the Ducks showed at least two different duck boats, both with overhead canopies.

Parson, the governor, said in an interview with Fox News that the safety of duck boat canopies is something officials will “determine in the future.”

Rescue crews work at the scene of a deadly boat accident at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., on July 19.
Rescue crews work at the scene of a deadly boat accident at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., on July 19. (Andrew Jansen / Associated Press)

4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about the victims and additional reaction from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information from authorities and condolences from President Trump and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson

This article was originally published at 10:50 a.m.

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