Duck boats like the one that sank in Missouri more than a year ago, killing 17 people, could be made safer by installing systems that prevent rapid sinking and by removing overhead canopies and side curtains, a federal agency said in a report Wednesday.
Those two recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board were essentially identical to those issued by the same agency in 2002 after another fatal duck boat ride on an Arkansas lake in 1999, but were not adopted by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“These safety issues were identified almost 20 years prior to the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 and remain relevant to this accident,” the NTSB said in its report.
A lawyer who represents some survivors of the Table Rock Lake tragedy called on the Coast Guard to improve passenger safety by following the NTSB’s initial recommendations.
“The Coast Guard and the duck boat industry ignored these vital safety recommendations and another 19 innocent victims died because of their failure to act,” said Philadelphia lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who also represented families of two tourists killed in 2010 aboard a duck boat on the Delaware River. “How many more must die before they will?”
Wednesday’s NTSB recommendations stemmed from its investigation of a July 19, 2018, disaster on Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri. A duck boat operated by Ride the Ducks in Branson took a tour on Table Rock Lake just ahead of a severe thunderstorm that was descending into the area.
The storm, which carried winds exceeding 70 miles per hour, battered the duck boat that had 31 people on board for a sightseeing tour. The boat could not withstand the tempest and sank to the bottom of the lake.
Wednesday’s NTSB report said that survivors of the disaster reported that Stretch Duck 7 sank less than a minute after the deck was submerged in water, leaving little time for the passengers to try to escape. Further complicating matters was the presence of an overhead canopy and side curtains, which prevented some passengers from escaping.
Those problems were cited after an NTSB investigation into the 1999 sinking of Miss Majestic on Lake Hamilton, Arkansas. In that incident, 13 of 20 passengers on board died when the duck boat, operated by Land and Lakes Tours Inc., took on water and sank.
The NTSB in 2002 recommended to the Coast Guard that duck boats be equipped with reserve buoyancy, a system that would provide additional flotation to keep the boats from sinking quickly. The NTSB, which has no authority to enact new regulations, also said duck boats should remove canopies and side curtains when on the water.
The Coast Guard, however, did not turn those suggestions into requirements.
“Following any marine casualty, the Coast Guard closely considers all recommendations provided by the NTSB to determine the most appropriate action to take,” said Lt. Amy Midgett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard did in 2000 issue what’s called a navigation and inspection circular, which Midgett said provided guidance on the design and installation of canopies and urged marine inspectors and vessel owners to evaluate features of the duck boat so they don’t restrict the ability of passengers to escape.
Mongeluzzi said, however: “The navigation circular didn’t fix the problem at all.”
Midgett said the Coast Guard is taking on a new review of duck boat canopies based on the NTSB’s recommendations.
Tia Coleman, an Indianapolis woman who survived the sinking of Stretch Duck 7 but who lost her husband and children in the tragedy, called on Coast Guard officials to meet with her.
“The duck boat and Coast Guard’s failure to act on the NTSB’s recommendations to remove death trap canopies and improve the buoyancy of these boats killed my family,” Coleman said in a statement. “I am publicly requesting the Commander of the Coast Guard to meet with me to discuss these recommendations and work together to save lives.”
Coleman was among several people who sued Ripley Entertainment, the operator of Ride the Ducks in Branson, following the tragedy. Several of those lawsuits have settled on confidential terms.
A federal grand jury in Missouri returned criminal charges against Curtis Lanham, the general manager of Ride the Ducks in Branson; Charles Baltzell, the operations manager on duty the day of the disaster; and Kenneth McKee, the captain of the duck boat.
The criminal charges accuse the defendants of neglect or of being more concerned with profit than passenger safety when decisions were made to begin the tour on Table Rock Lake when they knew or should have known that a severe thunderstorm was on its way.
The three men have pleaded not guilty.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, introduced legislation this year that would require the NTSB’s safety recommendations, as well as several other features that would make duck boats safer.
The bill is in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where no subsequent action has been taken.