Duck Boat Tragedy: Sunday Marks Two Years Since Duck Boat Capsized on Table Rock Lake, 17 Killed

BRANSON, Mo. (KY3) Sunday marks two 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.

For emergency responders, the scene that unfolded two years ago 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

“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 was 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.”

Coleman and her nephew survived, 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.

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.”

Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney for survivor Tia Coleman, hopes the recommendations handed down by the NTSB 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 planned to meet with Coast Guard officials in the near future to lobby for stricter laws and regulations.

It was a very frustrating and emotional day for Tia Coleman. 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.

Robert J. Mongeluzzi

An internal investigation performed by the National Weather Service found that local meteorologists followed procedure necessary to ensure public safety.

Ripley Entertainment, Inc., the company that operated duck boat rides in Branson, has settled 31 lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of the accident.

A federal grand jury has indicted the boat’s captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, along with Ride the Ducks Branson General Manager Curtis Lanham and the company’s operations supervisor, Charles Baltzell. McKee faces 17 counts of misconduct and negligence, one for each person who died. His attorneys have filed motions to dismiss the criminal case against him.

On Sunday, two years since the tragedy, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) released a statement in memory of the victims. He also pushed for support of legislation he and U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) have introduced that would make previously-issued NTSB recommendations a federal law.

Today we remember the 17 victims who lost their lives in the Duck Boat tragedy at Table Rock Lake, and the loved ones who are missing them every day. We owe it to these families to do everything we can to make sure a tragedy like this one never happens again.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has rightfully called on the U.S. Coast Guard, and owners and operators, to immediately implement safety recommendations for duck boats, including removing canopies. The Coast Guard should follow that action by moving quickly to issue regulations in compliance with NTSB recommendations. Senator Hawley and I have also introduced a bill that would make previously-issued NTSB recommendations federal law. I urge all of our colleagues to support that effort to improve safety and protect lives.

U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)

The Tri-Lakes Board of Realtors recently proposed building a 9-foot tall lighthouse memorial to honor the victims. Branson city leaders have tabled the idea.

Ride The Ducks has not operated in Branson since the tragedy two years ago.

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