Weather Service issued warnings of excessive winds before duck boat sank, killing 17

The National Weather Service in Springfield issued a severe thunderstorm warning Thursday evening for the Table Rock Lake area — nearly 45 minutes before a tourist boat sank, killing 17.

The warning, which was for Taney, Stone and Barry counties, went out at 6:32 p.m., said Kelsey Angle, a meteorologist with the Weather Service.

The first calls to 911 dispatchers about the boat were just before 7:10 p.m. It is not clear yet what time the vessel launched its 70-minute tour, though one witness told The Star that the boat may have entered the water as early as 6:45.

“Within that thunderstorm warning was the possibility of winds in excess of 60 mph,” Angle said. “Table Rock Lake was specifically mentioned.

“From what I’m hearing there was about a 30-minute lead time before it impacted the affected area at Table Rock Lake.”

Some people — from veteran meteorologists across the country to citizens in the Branson area — question why that warning apparently was not heeded in time. And they’re not buying that the storm came out of nowhere.

Debbie Mohling, a 25-year Branson resident, said everyone knew a storm was likely.

“They never should have been out on the water,” she said. “We knew a storm was coming in. I feel like it’s a tragedy that should not have happened.”

The Ride The Ducks Branson website has been taken down and now shows a message addressing the tragedy and announcing that the business will remain closed throughout the investigation. An archived version of the full site contains this message: “All of our duck tours go rain or shine, just like real ducks.”

The Ride The Ducks Twitter account, which has 581 posts, announced closures for weather three times throughout its history — each in March 2013. The closures were for snow and cold, not thunderstorms.

Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, which owns the Ride The Ducks company in Branson, told CBS News Friday morning that from what he’s been told about Thursday evening’s weather, it was “an almost micro storm event.”

“It was a fast-moving storm that basically came out of nowhere,” Pattison said. “The storm was moving at a higher rate of speed than expected.”

Yet the severe thunderstorm warning was in effect until 7:30. It isn’t clear why the boat, and another duck boat that managed to get to shore safely, were on the lake at the time.

The violent winds caused at least 3-foot waves on Table Rock.

Thirty-one people — including several children — were on the tourist boat when it hit the rough waters.

Some are beginning to question online the notion that the storm came out of nowhere.

Elisa Raffa, a meteorologist for Springfield’s CBS affiliate, tweeted the following:

“Wind reports started in KS. Springfield clocked 74 mph way before the storm got to Branson. Watch was in effect from 11:30AM. I’ve been so upset over how preventable this was.”

Al Alonzo was at his home about five minutes north of Branson when he saw the weather report shortly after 6 p.m. It said there was a storm coming and it would hit the area about 7 p.m.

By 6:30 p.m. Alonzo, 66, was watching small barbecue grills and lawn chairs getting blown over by strong winds. He helped some ladies in his neighborhood get inside and told them to hunker down.

His son told him that, shortly before 7 p.m., he saw a duck boat headed for the lake.

The wind was coming in strong and the water was choppy.

“They’re not going in, are they?” Alonzo said. “I don’t think they’d be going in when it’s like this.”

By Friday morning Alonzo had heard what happened to the boat.

“They went in,” he said. “Stupid, I can’t understand that.”

Incidentally, the two biggest mass casualties on water involving duck boats in the last 20 years featured crafts with overhead roof canopies that a federal agency said posed a drowning risk to passengers trying to escape from a sinking vessel.

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