Lawmakers are pushing for safety changes on duck boats
Mary Schiavo read the headlines in horror 19 years ago when 13 people on board a duck boat in Arkansas drowned after it sank in Lake Hamilton.
The former Inspector General for the Department of Transportation thought then that Congress and the U.S. Coast Guard should act immediately. They needed to strengthen regulations regarding canopies on the vessels, enforce stringent life jacket requirements and either ban duck boats altogether or crack down on their industry.
None of that happened.
Then came the horrific headlines last week from another duck boat tragedy on Table Rock Lake near Branson. This time, 17 of the 31 on board were dead, five of them children.
Not again, she thought.
Today, Schiavo is part of a growing chorus of experts, lawmakers and safety advocates who insist change to these boats should happen soon. Not in a year or two when the federal investigation is finished. But now, when duck boats are still transporting tourists on lakes and waterways in several states across the country.
“If people want laws, they need to push for them right now,” said Schiavo, a transportation lawyer who was inspector general from 1990 to 1996. “What happens is you have this critical period of time after a tragedy in which you can get action. ... But as soon as Congress isn’t under the microscope anymore, it becomes very difficult.”
The nation learned that lesson after the deadly duck boat disaster on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Ark. A long list of recommendations, which the National Transportation Safety Board came out with three years after the tragedy, was virtually ignored.
“If they had been (implemented), they would have saved this boat,” Schiavo said.
That inaction can’t happen again, lawmakers and safety advocates agree.
In the days since the Stretch Duck 07 sank in Table Rock Lake, one U.S. senator has begun working on legislation to implement the changes recommended 16 years ago and a Missouri lawmaker said the state needs to have a public hearing to identify what solutions are needed.
And the congressman who represents Branson thinks duck boats should be temporarily banned while the investigation determines why the vessel sank.
“These vehicles were not designed to haul people. They were World War II vehicles designed to go ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship hauling cargo,” said U.S. Rep. Billy Long, a Republican from Springfield. “They’ve been adapted over the years, and there’s been enough accidents. It’s time to cease and desist with them unless they can be made safe.”
Missouri’s two U.S. senators told their colleagues Tuesday that Congress must do something. Sen. Roy Blunt shared personal details of many of the victims and said the country can’t ever go through a loss like that again.
Sen. Claire McCaskill agreed.
“I don’t think it makes sense for us to wait another year to address some of these glaring issues in terms of passenger safety,” she said on the Senate floor. “We’ve had 40 deaths associated with the duck boats since 1999, yet there has been little done to address the inherent dangers of these amphibious vehicles.”
In the absence of federal legislation on duck boats, some cities and states where fatal incidents have occurred have taken it upon themselves to regulate duck boat tours to the extent that they can.
Will Branson and the state of Missouri follow suit?
“We need to get right on it,” said Rep. Bill Reiboldt, a Neosho Republican who is chair of the House transportation committee. “I think they can deal with it in next year’s session and come out with something.”
Some on the Ride The Ducks boat, an amphibious vehicle that goes from land to water, managed to swim to shore as the boat sank July 19. Others were trapped inside the duck boat as it sank in murky Table Rock Lake. None wore a life jacket.
NTSB officials have said they want to know what information the duck boat company and captain had before someone made the decision to take the boat out despite the fact that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. Federal investigators also want to know why no one on the boat was wearing a life jacket.
The NTSB has custody of the vessel. But it will likely be more than a year before the investigation is complete and full details are known about that night.
Rep. Jeff Justus, a Branson Republican, said he doesn’t think there’s a clear picture yet of exactly what needs to be done.
“We need to have more information before we start throwing laws around,” Justus said. “I’ve seen the lawmaking process. Sometimes when we rush we don’t get it anywhere close to right. ... If something needs to be done and improved, we need to do that. But I don’t believe we are there yet.”
Long said Congress needs to wait for investigators to complete their job and find out exactly what went wrong and why. A preliminary report should be finished in a couple of weeks, he said.
“And then see if these boats can be made safe,” Long said.
Others say it’s already obvious there are some fixes — recommended 16 years ago — that must happen now.
Among those: Installing backup buoyancy to keep a boat from sinking if it starts to take on water; eliminating canopies when the boat is in the water; and requiring life jackets, at least for the children.
Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney whose clients have sued duck boat operators, said it’s past time for the government to act.
“These are dangerous, they kill adults and children and they should be banned, “ he said. “There should be an immediate nationwide moratorium on duck boats and the government should finally do what they’re supposed to do and look at this, study this and ban it.”
Yet before legislation is crafted and enacted, companies that operate duck boats across the country must begin to police themselves, Reiboldt said.
Top on that list is implementing limitations when it comes to storm warnings and wind.
“I can’t see any reason with that weather coming, knowing it was coming, and you could even see it, why they would continue,” Reiboldt said. “That’s just not common sense. … Certainly before the season next year starts they should self-regulate themselves.”
“You learn from tragedies,” Reiboldt said. “Seventeen people lost their life. Let’s not put anybody else at risk.”
The duck boat industry’s first modern catastrophe occurred in May 1999, when the Miss Majestic began taking on water on Lake Hamilton. According to the eight survivors, it sank within 15 seconds to one minute.
The NTSB’s investigative report, released in 2002, made recommendations on how to improve safety. The recommendations included removing overhead canopies that could trap passengers as the boat sank and implementing a reserve buoyancy mechanism to keep the boats from sinking at all.
Several months after the Miss Majestic disaster, the NTSB held a safety forum with the Coast Guard and the duck boat industry.
“One major outcome of the forum was the realization by participants that amphibious vehicles pose unique and unresolved safety risks to the public, but that the vehicles could be made safe by installing safety features that would prevent them from sinking when flooded,” said a 2002 letter from the NTSB to U.S. Coast Guard Commandant James Loy.
A naval architect company attended the forum and showed how duck boats could be retrofitted with foam and bulkheads that would keep the vessels afloat when flooded and fully loaded with passengers.
Cost estimates at the time, though, indicated it would require about $2,000 per duck boat to install foam and bulkheads, plus another $10,000 for detailed engineering of the installations.
The NTSB said that three amphibious passenger vehicle companies were trying to make those improvements, but that others complained about the difficulty of making the installations. The agency upbraided the industry’s reluctance to adopt safety improvements and called on the Coast Guard to require the changes.
“Because the industry has, by and large, refused to take voluntary action to address this risk, the Safety Board considers it imperative that a regulatory authority takes steps to ensure that all amphibious passenger vehicles will not sink in the event of an uncontrolled flooding event,” the NTSB’s letter to the Coast Guard admiral said.
When the NTSB proposed its duck boat safety recommendations in 2002, Schiavo said, “almost every operator lobbied against the rules.”
Even though there had been 18 accidents involving amphibious passenger vehicles between 1991 and 1999, it wasn’t until the Miss Majestic case that the Coast Guard started developing nationwide “guidance” to advise field inspectors in charge of duck boats, according to the NTSB.
“The idea that the Coast Guard did not take action after the 1999 MISS MAJESTIC casualty is a mischaracterization of Coast Guard actions,” Alana Miller, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email to The Star. “The Coast Guard launched its highest level of investigation, a Commandant directed Marine Board of Investigation, which resulted in 17 recommendations. Those recommendations were accepted by the Coast Guard Commandant and action was taken.”
The primary action, Miller said, was the creation of a document that offered extensive guidance on stability, canopies and egress procedures. It also included guidance on other critical issues that were investigated during the Miss Majestic investigation.
But when the Coast Guard issued that first-ever guidance, called the Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular, the NTSB found that the document “does not adequately address important safety concerns.”
And the NTSB pointed out that “it is only an advisory document.”
In 2016, the NTSB again called on the Coast Guard to adopt new safety standards. That was in response to a 2015 Ride the Ducks incident in Seattle in which a duck boat was traveling on land when a mechanical failure caused it to cross over into oncoming traffic. The vehicle collided with a bus, killing five passengers and injuring 69 others.
In addition to again making recommendations to the Coast Guard, the NTSB specifically addressed the Passenger Vessel Association, a national trade organization, urging it to pass along suggestions to its members.
Among the recommendations: Encouraging members to learn lessons from the Seattle incident, in which the operator was accused of poorly maintaining the vessel; completing proper maintenance; and keeping up with service bulletin repairs. The NTSB also told the association to have passengers buckle their seat belts while the vessel was on land and unbuckle them upon entering the water.
And the safety board advised the association to have a separate tour guide to make sure its drivers weren’t distracted.
It’s not clear if the Passenger Vessel Association passed those recommendations along to its members. The association did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even if Congress doesn’t require the duck boat industry to change, the Coast Guard could.
It could implement a federal regulation on duck boat safety, said Schiavo, the former inspector general.
“The Coast Guard could easily say no canopies on these boats when they enter the water, and everybody 13 and under has got to be in a vest,” she said. “It’s easier for Congress to do it, but the Coast Guard could do a rulemaking.”
When asked about that, the Coast Guard’s Miller said the agency “does have federal regulations for recreational boating pertaining to life jackets.” She said, however, those regulations don’t cross into commercial vessels where there are “several built-in safety measures pertaining to egress, life jackets and stability to name a few.”
Miller didn’t elaborate.
The Coast Guard did implement a regulation in 2011, when it amended its rule on the maximum weight and number of riders that may be permitted on board a passenger vessel to better reflect the reality of the U.S. adult population. The regulation increased the assumed average weight per person from 160 to 185 pounds.
But the Coast Guard received pushback from Ride the Ducks International, which at the time operated duck boats in several states. When the Coast Guard began studying the change in 2006 and put out a request for public comments, then-company president Chris Herschend responded in opposition.
He wrote that while the company supported the goal of increasing passenger weight standards, it was concerned about the implication of “such a dramatic change on such short notice.”
“We routinely run at capacities higher than what the measures in the Notice would allow,” he wrote, adding that its boats “carry a disproportionate number of children and students relative to the general population and aviation industry standards upon which the proposed weight standards are based.”
Complying with the proposed standards would be extremely costly for the company, Herschend said.
“We estimate immediate compliance at an average passenger weight of 185 lbs could cost us as much as $4 million in lost sales, system wide, in 2006,” he wrote.
Over the next two years, Herschend said, the company estimated it would cost $10 million to get the company and its licensees in full compliance, “with no discernible improvement in safety over current levels.”
Calls and emails to representatives of the Herschend family were not returned.
Some say a cozy relationship between the industry and its regulators is a big reason safety improvements haven’t been made.
Even in his opposition letter, Chris Herschend said his company considered its relationship with the Coast Guard “to be among our most valuable assets.”
“We are in contact with your organization on a near-daily basis,” he said. “And I believe your team would affirm our team’s commitment to excellence, safety, and concern for the public welfare (not just our own).”
Duck boat operators are part of the Passenger Vessel Association, which touts its efforts to shape “positive outcomes” on regulatory issues.
“Through an aggressive legislative and advocacy program, PVA effectively represents the interests of the passenger vessel industry in our Nation’s Capital,” the group says on its website.
To do that, it says, “PVA maintains close contact with key legislators and committees on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures to ensure that industry positions are adequately addressed.”
It adds that “Congressional Fly-In Meetings provide members with an opportunity (to) meet in person with Members of Congress.”
“Every industry has a certain lobby,” Schiavo said. “Congress resorts to inertia once the lobbyists kick in.”
In the absence of federal legislation on duck boats, some cities and states that have had fatal incidents have taken it upon themselves to regulate tours to the extent that they can.
After a 28-year-old woman was killed in Boston in 2016 when her motor scooter collided with a duck boat on a street, the Massachusetts legislature soon took action. It passed a law requiring boats to have blind spot cameras and proximity sensors and prohibited duck boat drivers from simultaneously being narrators and tour guides.
In Philadelphia, the route the duck boats traveled on the Delaware River was constricted after a shipping barge collided with a Ride the Ducks boat in 2010, killing two tourists.
And in Canada, federal authorities temporarily halted duck boat operations after one deadly incident 16 years ago.
In that case, 10 people looking for a safe river tour boarded a boat that was little more than a floating pick-up truck.
Before that Sunday was over — July 23, 2002 — four people would be dead from drowning and hypothermia, freezing in the cold waters of the Ottawa River.
The craft was called the Lady Duck, an odd amphibious contraption that was cobbled together using the chassis of a Ford F-350 truck, sealed to be watertight, and extended to a length of 28 feet.
The Lady Duck held 10 passengers in the extended bed of the vehicle and two crew in the cab. Sponsons made of rigid foam plastic, and affixed to port and starboard sides of the craft, kept it afloat.
Similar to the Branson duck boats, it had an awning overhead to guard against the sun and inclement weather. Clear plastic windows rolled down.
Unlike at Table Rock Lake, the Ottawa River was fully calm as the craft left Hull Marina before 4 p.m. and puttered upstream from the Alexandra bridge using its single prop, creating a tiny wake at under 5 miles per hour.
All appeared to be fine until the Lady Duck started returning home. The front end of the craft seemed low. The driver asked several passengers to get to the back of the boat, to raise the front end.
By 4:10 p.m., “the situation deteriorated rapidly.” Floodwater poured into the front of the craft. The driver called on the passengers to abandon the sinking vehicle. The driver and seven passengers escaped out the back.
Four people — a mother, her two daughters, ages 5 and 13, and a Catholic nun — did not.
With life vests on, they became trapped under the Lady Duck’s fabric awning and sank 25 feet to the bottom of the river.
In response to the accident, Transport Canada, a federal agency, called for all amphibious vehicles to stop operation so they could be inspected.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada concluded that the company that put the Lady Duck on the water had done only the minimum in terms of safety.
The board made multiple recommendations, including adopting a new safety plan, that the company — called Lady Dive — has fulfilled.
The company also purchased new enclosed amphibious vehicles manufactured for the river tour.
An owner of Lady Dive did not return calls to The Star, but spoke to local media in Canada following the deaths in Branson.
“Safety and security on board are the same as all boats in Canada,” said owner Dianne Beauchesne. “Everybody has a life jacket which is located under their seats and there are several emergency exits off of the vessel. . . We take safety very seriously.”
It isn’t known what will happen in Branson. Mayor Karen Best told The Star Thursday that new legislation is likely.
“Will the ducks reopen?” Best asked. “I don’t know.”
But she said she has talked with business and community leaders about the boats.
“They shared that we have concerns moving forward about these amphibious vehicles being safe for our citizens and our visitors.”
The Star’s Mara Rose Williams and Tess Vrbin contributed to this report