Mourners gather to pray in parking lot of ‘Ride The Ducks’ in Branson
Seventeen people have been confirmed dead after a duck boat capsized in stormy weather near Branson on Thursday evening.
All missing people appeared to have been accounted for. Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader confirmed the total number of fatalities just after 10:15 a.m. Friday.
A spokesman with the Missouri Highway Patrol said the age range of those who died was from 1 to 70 years old, according to AP.
Rader said the boat’s captain survived but the driver did not.
Seven people were taken to hospitals, two with critical injuries.
Speaking at a press conference Friday morning, Rader said the first emergency call for the boat was at 7:09 p.m. It sank in 80 feet of water and was upright when found by divers. The boat has not yet been removed from water.
Nine members of a family of 11 died in the accident.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson met with the two survivors, a 13-year-old boy and his aunt, at the Cox Medical Center in Branson, according to the governor’s spokesman Steele Shippy.
“What happened here last night was a heartbreaking tragedy, and we must all work together to support the victims and their families,” Parson said. “The courageous efforts of emergency responders and civilian rescuers helped avert an even worse tragedy, as people rushed to help in extremely dangerous conditions. I was inspired by the stories I heard from some of those who were part of the rescue effort and tremendously encouraged by the strength of the family members of victims I met with today. We pray for all those who were affected by this terrible tragedy.”
Parson also spoke at the news conference Friday morning. He asked for patience while the investigation seeks answers about what happened.
There reportedly were 31 people on the Ride The Ducks boat, a vehicle that goes from land to water and is a popular attraction for tourists at Table Rock Lake. Some people were able to swim to shore, according to media reports.
On Friday, dozens passed through the parking lot outside the Ride The Ducks facility, some laying flowers on the windshields of vehicles that remained in the lot overnight.
Johnathon Brumfield dropped red roses off in a vase on his way to work.
Chris Lindsey, vacationing in the area from St. Louis, broke down as he sat in his pickup truck, wiping his eyes with a tissue.
“I just had to come up and say a prayer for the loss of everything,” he said. “For something catastrophic like this to happen, it’s terrible.”
People young and old from the New Beginnings Fellowship in the neighboring city of Hollister gathered in a large prayer circle in the parking lot of the “Ride the Duck” landing spot, where some victims had left their vehicles, never to return to them.
A shuttle van in the parking lot belonged to the Indiana family, according to Lacey Oliver, a 17-year-old who led the group in prayer and spoke to surviving relatives.
On Friday afternoon, as about 50 people joined hands and prayed together, a flower collection overflowed on the hood of those abandoned vehicles belonging to the men, women and children who drowned in Table Rock Lake.
Several people prayed in the 10-minute faith huddle, with one man asking God to “move his hand miraculously into the hearts of everybody involved.”
Shortly afterward, Lacey moved to the shuttle van, placing her hand on the hood near scores of flowers and closing her eyes in prayer.
Jim Pattison Jr., the president of Ripley Entertainment, spoke about the incident to CBS news.
“Never had an incident like this or anything close to it,” said Pattison, who traveled to Branson.
Ride The Ducks Branson, which offers 70-minute guided tours on the lake, appears to have taken down its website and stopped ticket sales on Friday morning.
On Facebook, the company changed its profile picture to that of a black ribbon on a gray background with its logo below and posted a statement on Facebook.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride The Ducks Branson,” the post said. “This incident has deeply affected us all. Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking.”
In the statement, Ride The Ducks said it would do anything possible to assist the families who were involved in the accident and that it would work with authorities in search and rescue efforts.
“Safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority,” it said.
By later Friday, the company’s website was back but with only the same picture of the black ribbon on gray background and the statement issued earlier.
The company’s popular tourist attraction had 4.5 out of 5 stars on Google Reviews.
On the Ride The Ducks Branson Facebook post, which had 507 comments and 505 shares on Friday morning, people responded with words of support.
Many commenters felt that Ride The Ducks appropriately handled the situation, calling it a “beloved Branson attraction.”
“You are known for being a entertainment ride of integrity and your presence and words here show that you truly care,” one person wrote on the post.
“This company doesn’t seem like the type who would knowingly risk lives. Having been on the duck myself less than a year ago it is a very family oriented and heartfelt tour,” another said.
Others, however, expressed anger at the company for running the tour in the storm.
“Everyone if those families should sue you for even going in the water on a storm watch. Are you idiots. Why would you even chance this with a storm warning,” one person said on the post.
“Why in the hell did the captain take the boat out in the storm, pretty irresponsible of them and dumb, I hope all families involved sue the crap out of ride the ducks for being so stupid,” another wrote.
Around the country, other duck boat tour companies posted statements after the Branson accident that reiterated their own safety measures.
“We continuously monitor the weather conditions from our three locations,” Boston Duck Tours said in a statement. The company said it uses U.S. Coast Guard recommendations and does not go out onto the water if there is lightning or winds over 25 knots.
A duck boat company operating in Mobile, Ala., sought to distance itself from the Missouri incident, saying it operates in “a different world” from Missouri.
Gulf Coast Ducks co-founder Scott Tindle told AL.com, an online news organization, the Alabama boats don’t go out in high winds and its drivers have high-level certifications. According to the article, the company trucked three duck boats to Houston following Hurricane Harvey to help stranded dialysis patients get to treatment.
The sheriff said the boats had life jackets on board.
Under Missouri boating laws, all vessels 16 feet in length or longer are required to carry one life jacket for each person on board. Adults are not required to wear the life jackets, but children under 7 must “unless the child is confined in a totally enclosed area of the vessel, such as the cabin area of a houseboat.”
The life jackets must also be readily accessible — not stored in closed or locked compartments.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol’s handbook of Missouri boating laws and responsibilities also has instructions for boat operators navigating severe weather.
Operators are directed to close all hatches, windows and doors, and have all passengers put on life jackets.
“Have your passengers sit on the vessel floor close to the centerline for their safety and to make the boat more stable,” the handbook reads.
Operators are also instructed to head to the nearest shore, pointing the bow into the waves at a 45-degree angle. But for those already caught in a storm, “it may be best to ride it out in open water rather than try to approach the shore in heavy wind and waves.”
On Facebook and across social media, users began using the #prayforbranson hashtag in offering messages of support for the tragedy.
The Star’s Allison Kite and Sarah Gish contributed to this report.