Jason Field was in disbelief when he got the call from a friend that a duck boat capsized in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., on Thursday.
As the grandson of Melvin Flath – the man who first popularized the now national tourist attraction of “duck boat” tours in Wisconsin Dells – Field has grown up on the amphibious vehicles since he was a young boy.
In the 1940s, Flath was contracted by the U.S. government to truck iron to Milwaukee mills. He heard of a government auction in Los Angeles where there would be 250 trucks for sale. He drove more than 2,000 miles to the Golden State in hopes of expanding his trucking business.
But instead of trucks for sale, there were duck boats – a military vehicle created during World War II and designed to travel on water and land.
Flath and his brother spent $250 on one in 1945 – nearly $3,500 today – and drove it back to Milwaukee. While Flath was on a trip to Wisconsin Dells later that year, the idea of duck boat tours was born.
Field operates the same property his grandfather first started in 1946. Thursday’s sinking more than 600 miles away was an event he hopes to never see repeated.
“I hope it never happens ever again,” Field said of the sinking boat that 17 people died trying to escape. “Unfortunately when you get in your car, when you get on an airplane, when you get on a train, it’s a numbers game.”
Despite the recent tragedy, duck boat operators in Wisconsin Dells – a popular tourist destination along the Wisconsin River that many Chicagoans frequent – don’t plan on making changes to their safety protocols.
“We’ve been operating safely in Wisconsin Dells for 73 years,” said Dan Gavinski, general manager of Original Wisconsin Ducks. “We are not changing any of our rules and regulations in light of what has happened down there with a different vehicle and under those weather conditions. Our record speaks for itself.”
But Andrew Duffy, an attorney who has represented families harmed by duck boats in Philadelphia, said he doesn’t think that answer’s good enough. Duffy said duck boats are “death traps” when they sink because of a lethal combination between a rigid canopy and a boat that doesn’t have much buoyancy to begin with.
“I think it’s a very cavalier approach to say, ‘We’re not changing anything,’ in the wake of such a horrific disaster where 17 people lost their lives in the industry that they’re involved in. Their approach should be that they’re going to reevaluate,” Duffy said.
Original Wisconsin Ducks and Dells Army Ducks, which Field owns, both operate original World War II duck boats. Both companies said they’ve never had any incidents like the one that occurred in Branson in the decades they’ve been in operation.
“Our boats, although similar in stature, are not the same boats that they operate down in Branson,” Field said. “Those ducks have been modified, they’ve been stretched by 4 to 5 feet.”
Both companies also own all the property their tours traverse, which allows for easy exits if necessary, Field and Gavinksi said. At any point in the ride, their duck boats can leave the water within a minute, they said.
Areas like Lake Delton are smaller bodies of water that see less traffic from large vessels, Field said. And in the event of bad conditions, the tours are put on hold.
“We’re pausing tours for weather and for water,” Field said.
This spring, dangerous water levels flowing from the spring thaw caused Field to put a pause on some tours.
Gavinski’s duck boats seat fewer people than the one that sunk in Branson and allow for 21 passengers and a pilot. In total, Original Wisconsin Ducks owns 92 vehicles, with about 58 of them currently in use.
Although riders aren’t required to wear life vests during the ride with either company, Field and Gavinksi said they demonstrate before every trip where they’re located and how to properly wear one.
On the boats operated by Original Wisconsin Ducks, life jackets are located about 2 feet above riders’ heads along the breakaway canopies which are held in place by Velcro, Gavinksi said.
Their boats also feature emergency exits along the front, back and side, and it’s company policy to leave curtains raised while on the water, he said.
Despite the differences between the duck boats in Wisconsin Dell and the one that sunk in Branson, Duffy said duck boat companies need to prepare for the worst.
“I don’t buy the argument that, ‘This hasn’t happened to us, so therefore we don’t have to make any safety changes.’ No company expects a disaster like this to happen,'” Duffy said.
Field declined to comment on the duck boats’ canopy roofs, which the National Transportation Safety Board pointed to as a key factor “contributing to the high loss of life” when a duck boat capsized in Arkansas in 1999, drowning 13 of its passengers, the Kansas City Star first reported.
But Field said he plans to take into consideration any recommendations the U.S. Coast Guard makes.
“My best interest is making sure that we’re creating family memories here that can be passed down to generation of generation that keep coming back to the Dells,” Field said.
Duffy won’t be riding a duck boat in Wisconsin Dells any time soon. “It is my firm opinion that a traditional duck boat cannot be made safer,” he said.