Missouri duck boat company was warned of design flaws

A private inspector said Saturday that he warned the company operating duck boats on a Missouri lake about design flaws putting the watercraft at greater risk of sinking, less than a year before the accident that killed 17 people during a sudden storm.

Passengers weren't wearing life jackets when the tour boat sank, killing 17

Mallory Cunningham, left, Santino Tomasetti, centre, and Aubrey Reece attend a candlelight vigil in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks on Friday night in Branson, Mo. One of the company's duck boats capsized Thursday, resulting in 17 deaths on Table Rock Lake. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

A private inspector said Saturday that he warned the company operating duck boats on a Missouri lake about design flaws putting the watercraft at greater risk of sinking, less than a year before the accident that killed 17 people during a sudden storm. 

Steve Paul, owner of the Test Drive Technologies inspection service in the St. Louis area, said he issued a written report for the company in August 2017. It explained why the amphibious vehicles' engines — and pumps that remove water from their hulls — might fail in inclement weather.

He also said the tourist boats' canopies make them hard to escape when they sink, a concern raised by regulators after a similar sinking in Arkansas killed 13 people in 1999.

A duck boat sits idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks, an amphibious tour operator in Branson, Mo., on Friday. The amphibious vehicle is similar to one of the company's boats that capsized. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

The accident Thursday evening on Table Rock Lake outside the tourist town of Branson is also raising questions about whether storm warnings in the area went unheeded and whether any agency can keep boaters off the water when inclement weather approaches.

"If you have the information that you could have rough waters or a storm coming, why ever put a boat on that water?" Paul said.

A witness' video of the duck boat just before it capsized suggests that its flexible plastic windows might have been closed and could have trapped passengers as the hybrid boat-truck went down. It does not show passengers jumping clear.

A woman writes a message during a candlelight vigil for vctims and their families in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks on Friday. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

"The biggest problem with a duck when it sinks is that canopy," Paul said. "That canopy becomes what I'll call a people catcher, and people can't get out from under that canopy."

Probe into sinking begins

Investigators have begun probing why passengers aboard the amphibious vehicle — in the middle of a severe thunderstorm — weren't wearing life jackets when their vessel sank on a Missouri lake Thursday night, killing 17 people.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said its investigation, which could take up to a year, will look into whether people on the vessel, originally built for military use in the Second World War, were told not to wear flotation devices and whether the captain was aware of a severe weather warning for the area.  The U.S. National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the area nearly eight hours before the boat sank.

Tia Coleman, whose family made up over half the victims — aged one to 76 — told Indianapolis television station WXIN that she and a nephew were the only survivors among 11 relatives aboard the boat. She said she lost all her children.

Coleman said crew members told passengers the tour would start on the water because of an incoming storm. She said the captain told passengers that they would not need life jackets. By the time of the accident, she said, "it was too late."

"We will look at the people involved. We'll look at the environment. We will be working arduously to learn what happened, why it happened and how to prevent it from happening again," said Earl Weener, a member of the NTSB. 

The website for Ride the Ducks Branson has been taken down, except for a page saying the business will remain closed to support the investigation and allow time for families and the Branson community to grieve.

Emergency workers patrol an area on Friday near where the duck boat capsized the night before. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

Suzanne Smagala, a spokesperson for Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said it was the company's only accident in more than 40 years of operation.

Jim Pattison Jr., the son of Canadian business magnate Jim Pattison and the president of Ripley Entertainment, said Friday that the captain operating the boat had 16 years of experience and the business monitors weather. Ripley Entertainment is owned by the Jim Pattison Group, headquartered in Vancouver.

Community mourns as victims identified

The grief-stricken community of Branson, known for its country shows and entertainment, hosted two vigils Friday night. About 300 people gathered in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks of Branson and others mourned at a church, singing Amazing Grace at both locations.

Late Friday, the Stone County Sheriff's Department released a list of the people who were killed.

The sheriff's department identified the Indiana family members as:

  • Angela Coleman, 45
  • Arya Coleman, 1
  • Belinda Coleman, 69
  • Ervin Coleman, 76
  • Evan Coleman, 7
  • Glenn Coleman, 40
  • Horace Coleman, 70
  • Maxwell Coleman, 2
  • Reece Coleman, 9

The people from Missouri were identified as:

  • William Asher, 69,
  • Rosemarie Hamann, 68
  • Janice Bright, 63
  • William Bright, 65

Janice and William Bright had recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary. The dead also included crew member Bob Williams, 73; Leslie Dennison, 64, of Illinois; as well as Steve Smith, 53, and his son, Lance Smith, 15, both from Arkansas.

Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard for a pleasure cruise. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt when the vessel went down. The captain survived, authorities said.

A woman on a nearby vessel captured video of the duck boat being tossed on the water just before it sank: 

17 dead after duck boat capsizes in rough waters. 0:58

'Death traps'

Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.

Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus. Thirteen people died in 1999 when a boat sank near Hot Springs, Ark.

"Duck boats are death traps," said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. "They're not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat."

Listen as a survivor recounts her ordeal after the duck boat capsized:

Safety advocates have sought improvements and complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements.

The sheriff said Thursday that two duck boats were on the water at the time of the storm. Both were headed back to land. One returned safely. The other did not.

Divers quickly located the sunken vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lakebed. Authorities planned to recover it at some point in the next few days.

The boat sank in 12 metres of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 25 metres of water.