Coast Guard: Duck boat changes needed after Table Rock Lake sinking

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LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) – The U.S. Coast Guard agrees that canopies and side curtains should be removed from amphibious tour vehicles known as stretch duck boats, according to documents released Tuesday following an investigation into a deadly accident two summers ago on a Missouri lake.

The National Transportation Safety Board released the findings of its investigation into the July 2018 tragedy, when a Ride the Ducks vehicle sank during a severe and sudden storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson, killing 17 of the 31 people on board.

Included among the documents released by the NTSB was a letter dated April 15 in which Daniel Abel, vice admiral of the Coast Guard, said the Guard agreed with an NTSB recommendation to modify vehicles like the one that sank in Missouri.

“The removal of canopies, side curtains, and associated framing from the DUKW fleet would improve emergency egress,” the report stated. The Coast Guard said it would issue a Marine Safety Information Bulletin, the first step in the process.

During a virtual meeting Tuesday, the NTSB repeated criticism of the Coast Guard that it issued in November, saying the agency had ignored its recommendations to improve the boats since a duck boat accident in Arkansas killed 13 people in 1999. The board said it has repeatedly urged the Coast Guard to require that the boats be upgraded to stay afloat when flooded and to remove barriers to escape, such as canopies.

The boat’s owner, Ripley Entertainment, has settled 31 lawsuits filed by survivors or relatives of those who died. The dead included nine members of one family from Indianapolis. Other victims were from Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansas.

Two Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators interviewed duck boat Capt. Scott McKee the day after the accident. McKee said radar indicated the storm was “quite a ways away,” so he took the boat into the water, but it quickly turned from calm to turbulent.

“I never expected it to get this rough,” McKee said. “Never had any – I’ve never seen it get that rough.”

McKee said he didn’t have time to tell passengers to don life jackets. He found himself in the water, struggling to survive, and someone saved him by pulling him onto the Branson Belle, another tourist boat.

NTSB members said they hadn’t been able to interview McKee because of ongoing criminal investigations. McKee, of Verona, is charged with 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty. Two Ripley executives are also charged with misconduct and neglect.

Police say McKee didn’t tell passengers to don life jackets or help them abandon ship, even after water started swamping the boat.

The NTSB acknowledged in its report that more duck boat passengers would have died if they had been wearing life jackets, because the flotation devices would have forced passengers upward and trapped them against the canopy, when they needed to swim downward to get into the water. They acknowledged that conflicts with general guidance to always wear life jackets on boats.

According to the NTSB report, the weather service had issued severe storm warnings with sufficient time to stop the boat, known as Stretch Duck 7, from going in the water. Investigators couldn’t determine if McKee saw an email warning about the upcoming storm before going into the water.

Witnesses on the Branson Belle recalled the harrowing moments as the duck boat sank, with people suddenly swimming for their lives.

Deckhand Elijah Romero said he could see the waves overwhelming the boat.

“And as soon as the windows in the back of the boat dropped below the water line on the stern, the whole thing went down in 10 seconds, it was gone,” Romero told investigators. “The whole thing was under water, and we could see people floating in the water.”

NTSB investigators said quick action by Branson Belle passengers and staff saved lives.

The refurbished amphibious duck boats were a major tourist attraction in Branson for nearly 50 years, and Ripley purchased the attraction in 2017. The boats started out on land and then entered the water for a brief tour around the lake. Ripley suspended operations of the boats after the accident and it remains unclear if they will ever return to the lake.

By MARGARET STAFFORD and JIM SALTER, Associated Press


Here is a list of the 19 official findings of the NTSB:

  1. The bilge pump and steering operations were not a factor in the sinking.
  2. Impairments by drugs or alcohol were not a factor in the sinking.
  3. The National Weather Service provided accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings, not a factor in sinking.
  4. Ride the Ducks did not effectively use their weather information to the best of their ability, and access risk to operations is a factor in sinking.
  5. Ride the Ducks should have suspended water-born operations of last tours of the day in anticipation of imminent severe weather, is a factor in sinking.
  6. Ride the Ducks should have had more guidance on when to suspend operations due to weather (‘go-no-go policy’), which is a factor in sinking.
  7. The captain of Stretch Duck 7 did believe he could safely get back from the water tour to the dock.
  8. The captain’s decision to head towards the exit ramp was appropriate.
  9. The bow hatch (air intake) in the front of the boat let water into the engine department, is a factor in sinking.
  10. The boat sank so rapidly as a result of uncontrolled flooding because of a lack of subdivision in the vessel.
  11. Had the Coast Guard implemented safety recommendations from the NTSB on adding reserve buoyancy to the vessels, the boat likely would not have sunk.
  12. The Stretch Duck 54 was able to exit the lake due to being under the same conditions because it was a different type of duck boat with better features (bow hatch, buoyancy, etc.)
  13. The closed curtains on the starboard side during sinking made it harder for passengers to escape and likely caused some fatalities.
  14. Donning life jackets when the boat was sinking could have made it harder to escape, and could have resulted in additional fatalities.
  15. Actions by crew and passengers aboard the Show Boat Branson Belle prevented more fatalities.
  16. The response by EMS was timely and effective.
  17. Improved training is needed for small passenger vessel operators to know and better understand weather conditions.
  18. Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) didn’t adequately address NTSB recommendations to remove canopies and likely increased the number of fatalities.
  19. NVIC does not account for circumstances in the accident, including operations during approaching severe weather and escape options for passengers, which needs to be updated.

Here is the probable cause statement:

The NTSB determines that the probable cause of the sinking of the amphibious passenger vessel Stretch Duck 7 was RipleyRipley Entertainment Inc./Ride The Ducks of Branson’s continued operation of water-born tours after a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Table Rock Lake, exposing the vessel to a derecho (line of widespread, fast-moving severe storms), which resulted in waves flooding through a non-weather tight air intake hatch on the bow. Contributing to the sinking, was the Coast Guard’s failure to require sufficient reserve buoyancy in amphibious vessels. Contributing to the loss of life, was the Coast Guard’s ineffective action to address emergency egress on any passenger vessels with fixed canopies, such as Stretch Duck 7, which impeded passenger escape.

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