Crime

Captain of Branson duck boat that sank on Table Rock Lake indicted on federal charges

A federal grand jury has charged the captain of a duck boat that sank on Table Rock Lake with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty in connection with the tragedy that claimed 17 lives.

Kenneth Scott McKee, who captained the Stretch Duck 7 boat on July 19 for Ride the Ducks in Branson, is accused of a litany of violations of federal law overseeing boat captains, including:

Not properly assessing incoming weather before taking the boat out on water;

Operating the boat in conditions that violate the U.S. Coast Guard’s certificate of inspection;

Not telling passengers to use flotation devices;

Not speeding up to head to the nearest shore as severe weather approached;

Failing to raise the side curtains of the boat when its bilge alarm sounded as it took on water.

“The captain of the vessel always has a duty to operate his vessel in a safe manner,” said Timothy Garrison, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Missouri, at a news conference Thursday morning in Springfield. “That’s why Mr. McKee is under indictment this morning.”

Garrison said the entire community was “shocked and saddened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last summer.”

“Today’s indictment alleges that the misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty by the ship’s captain caused or contributed to the loss of those lives.”

If convicted, McKee faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison without parole on each count, plus a fine of $250,000.

McKee’s attorney, J.R. Hobbs, said he was reviewing the indictment, working with the court to schedule a bond hearing and arraignment and anticipates his client will enter a not guilty plea.

A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, which owns the Ride the Ducks operation in Branson, did not provide a comment. The company has repeatedly said it cannot comment on the ongoing investigation and that it is fully cooperating with authorities.

Jeffrey Goodman, a lawyer representing several victims in civil lawsuits against Ripley Entertainment and other defendants, said the indictment “highlights the outrageousness of the decision to operate the death-trap duck boat in an apparent attempt to beat a widely and accurately forecasted storm. Our clients fully support today’s action and the continuing work of the prosecutors to punish the individuals and companies involved.”

The daughter of victim William Asher, 69, of St. Louis, said she and her siblings were relieved to learn about the indictment.

“While it is tough to be reminded of the tragic ordeal, my brother, sister and I believe the government is taking its responsibility seriously to protect the public from these dangerous boats,” said Jennifer Asher, in a statement issued Thursday. “My family does not want anyone to experience this sort of tragedy ever again. We believe there is more than one person responsible for the reckless decision to put the boat on the water that day. We believe the ongoing investigation is moving in the right direction and appreciate the government’s effort in seeking justice for our dad.”

McKee, 51, of Verona, Mo., had been identified as a target of the federal investigation in an earlier court filing by the U.S. attorney’s office. He was one of 31 people on the boat and among the 14 who survived. The victims included the boat’s driver, 73-year-old Robert “Bob” Williams, a retired pastor who was responsible for operating the vehicle on land.

Of the 17 dead, nine were from one Indianapolis family. The other victims included couples from Higginsville, Mo., and St. Louis; an Illinois woman who was taking her granddaughter on a special trip to Branson; and a father and son from Arkansas. Seven other passengers were injured, including a 13-year-old boy and his aunt who were relatives of the nine family members who died.

Thursday’s indictment is the first criminal charge arising from the Table Rock Lake catastrophe. Garrison said he could not comment on whether there would be additional indictments, but said the grand jury is continuing to meet periodically on the case.

“This indictment represents the beginning, and not the end, of our efforts in this matter,” Garrison said. “We’re strongly committed to bringing this investigation to a conclusion as quickly as we can without sacrificing or compromising the integrity of this investigation. We owe that to the victims and the surviving family members of this tragedy. We also owe that to the public, which has an important interest in seeing that this statute is enforced.”

He added that he has spoken with the families. “We are in constant communication with them.”

The boat tour was initially set to begin on land that July night, which was its usual course. Tickets for the tour said it would start at 6:30 p.m.

Before the first passengers boarded, an individual stepped onto the back of the boat at 6:28 p.m. and told the crew to conduct the water portion of the tour first, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph — near hurricane force — with waves topping three feet.

When the boat started its water tour at 6:55 p.m. the lake appeared calm. Around that time, emergency crews in Taney County began responding to calls about toppled trees and downed power lines caused by the storm.

Just after 7 p.m., winds increased and whitecaps were visible on the water, according to an initial report released by the NTSB. Less than a minute later, the captain of the Ride the Ducks boat made a comment about the storm, the NTSB report said, without further explanation.

In August, The Star obtained a copy of a copy of Stretch Duck 07’s Certificate of Inspection, which sets conditions under which the vessel can operate. Those include the number of passengers, weather and use of life preservers. The Branson boat’s certificate set stringent guidelines for wind and water conditions.

According to the certificate of inspection, the company violated limitations put in place for severe weather.

“Vessel shall not be operated waterborne when winds exceed 35 mph, and/or the wave height exceeds two feet,” said the certificate, which was issued in February 2017.

Yet the duck boat owned by Ripley Entertainment entered the lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued the severe thunderstorm warning for the area. That alert included Table Rock Lake and warned of winds in excess of 60 mph.

Ripley Entertainment purchased Ride the Ducks Branson from Herschend Family Entertainment in December 2017. The tour boats, which ran on Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo, have not been operating in Branson since the tragedy.

This week, The Star reported about concerns with the duck boat’s bilge pumps that are designed to discharge water from the bottom of a flooding vessel. It found that a powerful mechanical device called a Higgins pump, capable of extracting up to 250 gallons of water per minute, had been removed from Stretch Duck 07 prior to the tragedy and replaced with electric bilge pumps with less capacity.

Ripley would not say what the capacity of those replacement pumps was, but The Star examined dozens of duck boat inspections conducted by the Coast Guard and found references to other Higgins pumps that had been replaced in recent years with electric bilge pumps. Those pumps were capable of extracting just 20 gallons of water or less per minute — or less than one-tenth the pumping capacity of a Higgins.

A Florida marine safety expert said he wasn’t surprised that Thursday’s charges focused on the boat’s captain.

“The captain is the ultimate decision-maker,” said Jim Allen, who served 30 years in the Coast Guard and has spent more than two decades as a safety consultant. “Once that thing is underway, he has the ultimate responsibility for the safety and welfare of the vessel and the people. Even if the company tells him to go, he could say, ‘No, I’m not going.’”

Allen said it was “a shame” that McKee didn’t order passengers to put on life jackets when the storm moved in.

“Any time the weather gets rough, you should have your passengers put on life jackets,” he said. “Then they’d at least have had a chance. It’s just a total lack of situational awareness. All the warning signs that existed, he ignored them.”

Allen said Ripley could share some of the blame.

“Did the company provide proper training?” he said. “What kind of license did the captain have? Was he that familiar with the duck vessels? So many questions come into play, but it’s hard to say without all the facts.”

Allen said it’s possible that the duck boat captains depended solely on Ripley to alert them about bad weather.

“He might have a defense there if he says, ‘Well, they keep me advised what the weather is, and I just assumed there was adequate time to make this trip before the storm got here,’” he said. “It’s a flimsy excuse, but it’s an excuse.”

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