17 dead, nine from one family: Branson deals with shock of tour boat tragedy

Winds exceeding 60 mph were ripping across Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri Thursday evening.

A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued more than 30 minutes earlier. To the surprise of many on the Showboat Branson Belle, which was not out on the lake yet, two “Ride the Ducks” tour boats were trying to make their way across the churning waters.

“I’m like, ‘Why would you even be out there?’ ” Jennie Carr of Joplin, Mo., told The Star on Friday. “You could see the storm coming. It was clear as day.”

One of the ducks would make it back to shore. But as Carr — and, eventually, the rest of the country — would see, one would not. Seventeen people died as the boat sank to the bottom of the lake. Carr’s video of the tragedy soon went viral.

Of the 17 dead, nine were from one Indianapolis family. Among those also killed: a husband and wife from Higginsville, Mo.; and a St. Louis couple known to friends as “the life of the party.” Seven other passengers were injured, including a 13-year-old boy and his aunt, relatives of the nine family members who died.

The injured aunt and nephew met with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson Friday as they recovered in a Branson hospital.

“This is a devastating day for Missouri,” said Kelli Jones, a spokeswoman in Parson’s office.

Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said the first emergency call for the boat came in at 7:09 p.m. The vessel sank in 80 feet of water and was upright when found by divers. As of Friday evening, the boat had not yet been removed from the water.

The boat’s captain survived, but the driver did not.

Before divers discovered the final four bodies, meteorologists across the country and citizens from the region began to question why weather warnings weren’t heeded in time.

U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., expressed concerns about the circumstances surrounding the accident.

“This is a tragedy that never should have happened,” Blunt said in a statement. “I stand ready to pursue whatever action is necessary to keep this from happening again.”

McCaskill said she would “examine legislative solutions to increase safety on amphibious vehicles.”

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’d been told about Thursday evening’s weather, it was “an almost microstorm event.”

“It was a fast-moving storm that basically came out of nowhere,” Pattison said.

Some refused to buy that.

The National Weather Service in Springfield issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 Thursday evening for the Table Rock Lake area — nearly 45 minutes before the tourist boat sank.

The warning, which was for Taney, Stone and Barry counties, was in effect until 7:30, said Kelsey Angle, a meteorologist with the weather service.

“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.”

Parson said it was time to pray for the families and come together. Questions about the weather and why the boat was on the lake in the first place would have to be answered in time, he said.

“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.”

Residents in disbelief

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 women 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.”

Neither could Debbie Mohling, a 25-year Branson resident. Everyone knew a storm was likely, Mohling said.

“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.”

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.”

The Ride the Ducks Branson website was 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.”

Prayers for victims

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 off red roses 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, Mo., gathered in a large prayer circle in the parking lot of the “Ride the Ducks” 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.

By Friday evening, tens of thousands of people had viewed Jennie Carr’s video on The Star’s website. As it plays, you can see the struggle of the duck boat get worse as it begins to take on water.

At one point, when the boat is still afloat, the tape recording shuts off.

That’s when Carr could no longer see the boat and she stopped filming. She admits she’s relieved she didn’t see the last few minutes.

“I think if I would have seen the boat sink, that probably would have been more tragic for me,” Carr said. “I didn’t want to see all those people lose their lives. I know there were kids on that boat.”

The Star’s Edward McKinley and Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

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