Boat design, disregard for life jackets led to duck boat deaths, survivors say

The design of the craft itself and a disregard for safety devices were key factors in the mass casualties suffered after a duck boat sank at Table Rock Lake, traumatized survivors said Saturday.

They told of the chilling and chaotic final moments as the vessel went down in bad weather Thursday evening. They spoke of life jackets that were not used, plastic coverings that enclosed windows and a canopy that forced passengers toward the ceiling and was released only after the boat submerged.

As the boat lurched through choppy waves, Alicia Dennison, 12, tried to reach a life jacket. They were “stuck” and she couldn’t pull it down from the shelf overhead.

None of the 17 dead was found wearing a life jacket, nor the 14 survivors rescued from the lake, according to a Missouri Highway Patrol report released Saturday.

“It (the water level) slowly raised,” said Alicia, from Milan, Ill. “It filled up a little, then it just crashed in and all the waves just came in and it started to sink.”

After the boat sank, Alicia reached the top of the roof and was pushed against the canopy. She estimates the duck boat was under water for about a minute before the canopy suddenly came off and she was swimming up toward light at the surface.

Alicia had come on a special trip to Missouri with her grandmother, Leslie Dennison, who did not survive.

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Duck boat survivor Tia Coleman is comforted by family after answering questions on Saturday, July 21, about her escape from the sinking boat and the loss of nine family members on Table Rock Lake, in Branson, Mo. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

Her story matches others. Tia Coleman of Indianapolis lost nine relatives, including her husband and three children. She said, in trying to escape, “I don’t know if someone pushed me, but I hit my head on the ceiling.”

“It was hard to get up to the top,” Coleman said Saturday from a CoxHealth System hospital in Branson. “I was getting pulled down.”

Gillian Collins, 15, was in the boat with her father. Her mom, Mandi Keller, speaking from her home in Cisco, Texas, recounted her daughter’s story.

When the boat submerged, it was “total and utter chaos.”

“Gillian said the captain was freaking out,” Keller said. “She said, ‘I was freaking out because he was freaking out.’ ”

Keller said her daughter made it clear that the canopy was on and the windows were sealed. According to Keller, her ex-husband said the captain had a moment of clarity and was able to release the canopy.

“They were all closed,” Keller said her daughter told her. “The windows were closed and the top was on. They were all stuck in there until that top came off.”

Gillian is a strong, hard-headed young woman, Keller said. And she proved that when she had to get out of the boat. Keller said Gillian told her she thought she was going to die.

“She said the thought popped in her head, ‘I’m not dying today,’ and the top came off, and she said, ‘It was so hard to get out of the boat, Mom. It was so hard to get out of the boat.’ ”

The Star reported Friday that the two biggest mass casualties on water involving duck boats over the last 20 years featured crafts with overhead canopies — a feature that the National Transportation Safety Board found to pose a risk to passengers trying to escape from a sinking vessel.

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Boats in the parking lot of Ride The Ducks in Branson on Friday. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

In 1999, the sinking of a duck boat in Hot Springs, Ark., killed 13 of 21 passengers. When investigators recovered the boat, they found seven dead passengers still inside — four of them pinned against the underside of the canopy.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, was briefed Friday in Branson by the NTSB, U.S. Coast Guard — which regulates commercial boating on the lake — and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The one thing I want to know among other things,” Blunt said, “is did the Coast Guard and the operator take the NTSB’s recommendations seriously and do what they could do to comply with them?

“And if they did that, was there possibly an operator error or equipment error or a licensing problem? And if there was an act of God, was there something that could be avoided?”

Blunt said congressional hearings are possible.

Like a number of survivors, Coleman said that riders were told that because a storm was brewing, they would begin with the water portion of the tour first.

The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the lake at 6:32 p.m., roughly 40 minutes before the duck boat sank. On Saturday, the NTSB said the lake was raked by winds up to 73 miles per hour, 1 mph short of hurricane force.

At the beginning of the tour, Coleman said a crew member told guests: “ ‘Above you are your life jackets. There’s three sizes. I’m going to show you where they are, but you won’t need them.’ ”

“So I didn’t grab them,” she said.

Alicia Dennison told her mother, Shaunna Cumberworth, that she remembers someone saying they shouldn’t be on the water because the Weather Channel put out a warning.

“They were not asked to wear jackets,” Cumberworth said.

Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney who represented clients who brought various legal claims against Ride the Ducks, called the presence of the curtains serving as windows “another enormous problem because when the vessel sinks you are now trapped inside a tomb or a coffin.”

“Once they are zipped inside a window-enclosed coffin they are, I hate to say it, sitting ducks,” Mongeluzzi said. “They don’t have a chance.”

Paul and Gina Lemus, and their five children, were passengers in a duck boat that launched after the one that sank. They said skies directly overhead appeared clear but off to the right, they could see storms rolling in.

Soon, their boat was also buffeted by wind and waves, and Paul Lemus said there was no encouragement from the captain to wear life jackets. And like the doomed boat, the windows on their craft were also covered.

“I think with the waves and wind so strong, it would put pressure against the window to get out,” Gina Lemus said. “For elderly people and children, it would be really hard to try to push the window open.”

Added Paul Lemus: “If we would have stayed in a minute longer, we probably would have gone under.

“In a moment of panic, in looking at this in hindsight, you’d need to put a life vest on and swim toward the back of the boat (to escape).”

For the sinking boat, that terrifying scenario became a reality.

After Coleman bumped her head on the canopy, she made a harrowing escape. But her relief soon turned to panic when she realized her children and husband weren’t at the surface.

“I got out into the water. It was ice cold,” she said. “I knew because it was so cold I was close to bottom. I remember kicking and swimming up to the top.

“I said, ‘Lord, let me get to my babies.’ ”

When she couldn’t find her children, “it was the worst feeling you could ever feel.” She remembered thinking, “If they don’t make it, then take me too. There’s no reason for me to be here.”

Keller’s daughter Gillian, the teen who swam hard to free herself, borrowed a phone so she could call her mother. Mandi Keller said none of Gillian’s group “ever want to get on a boat again. Not one of them.”

She added: “She’s sad, very sad. She’s only 15 and she witnessed a lot of lives lost, and she’s traumatized.”

Steve Paul, a private inspector in the St. Louis area, said he warned Ripley Entertainment last August about design flaws that put duck boats at greater risk of sinking, The Associated Press reported Saturday. Similar concerns were raised by regulators after the 1999 Arkansas tragedy.

Officials in Branson and a spokeswoman for Ripley said that, at least around Table Rock, the boats have never encountered serious problems.

“We take every safety precaution,” said Suzanne Smagala, the spokeswoman for Ripley, which entered the Branson duck-boat market last year. She added that the captain had inspected the boat Thursday morning.

Later that day, around 6:30 p.m., David Rapp and his family, who had cruised Ride the Ducks two days earlier, were still in the Branson area.

They saw the storm coming on their smartphones — orange and yellow blobs from weather radar heading toward their position.

From a campsite they observed doom roiling in the skies. David Rapp’s sister, Mary Jaggie of St. Louis, said she could see fear in her teenage children’s eyes, just watching the building strength of the winds. They saw trees bend and camper awnings tear as the storm barreled through — well before the duck boat on Table Rock was reported to be in trouble.

Smagala said that “the water was clear and flat and safe” when the boat went into the lake.

A video that quickly went viral Friday morning shows the boat being overcome by winds and whitecaps within an estimated 15 minutes.

At that moment, Mary Jaggie said, Table Rock Lake was anything but flat.

“That boat had no business being on the lake,” Jaggie said, “and I’ll go to a court and say that to a judge.”

The Star’s Lindsay Wise, Steve Vockrodt and Judy L. Thomas contributed to this report.