The sky grew dark. Fierce winds turned the waves on Table Rock Lake into whitecaps. Hard rain fell.
From the deck of the Showboat Branson Belle, docked at shore, Brayden Malaske, 20, pointed his cellphone camera at the two Ride the Ducks boats lurching forward, rising and falling, as the whitecaps crashed over their bows.
In the end, he would describe the scene as “horrific.” His sister remembers passengers screaming when they plunged into the water. Those with life vests on seemed to make it to shore. Those without thrashed in the waves, struggling to survive.
The tragedy killed 17 people, including some children, and injured many others. And watching it unfold, helpless, were the passengers on the Branson Belle, a two-hour dinner cruise that takes passengers around the lake in nostalgic riverboat fashion. The cruise had been scheduled to depart about an hour later.
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“The boat never left the dock,” said Allison Lester, another passenger.
“These two (boats) were taking on water,” Malaske said Friday. “You could tell they were trying to get out of there. They had the sides pulled down trying to keep the rain out. You could see that one of them, for some reason, was having more trouble. It was going slower, hitting the waves harder.”
Even then Malaske didn’t think either of the World War II-style boats would go down — until one did. He didn’t see it happen.
He watched what happened next.
“People were swimming,” he said. “You could see life vests floating around. It was not a good sight to see.”
The wind was so powerful, said his sister, Lexi Malaske, 15, that it took both her and her mother to open the door on the Belle. They and their family were on their last night of vacation in Branson, up from Harrah, Okla.
“There was a lot of screaming,” she said.
Standing on the top deck of the Belle, she and her mom felt all but helpless. Spotting victims from their perch, they yelled to crew members to find them and pull some aboard.
“I didn’t see very many with life jackets on,” she said. “Those that did were on the shore.”
The winds, she said, pushed bodies against the hull of the Belle.
“A very eerie sight that you don’t want to see again,” she said.
Her mother, Sonja Malaske, called it a “horrific moment that is just indescribable. ... You felt helpless, other than directing the rescue people. We did, we were up high. If we saw somebody alive, we would just yell.”
They saw a woman hanging onto a paddle. Rescuers didn’t see her. Their yelling led to her rescue.
“We kept pointing where she was,” Sonja Malaske said.
The Malaskes had planned to continue their vacation, perhaps head from Branson to Kansas City for a few days.
“We just want to go home now,” she said. “You’re glad to be alive.”
‘Oh, Lord, please help those people’
Jennie Carr had been on the Branson Belle for only a couple of minutes Thursday night when she gravitated toward the windows and the white-capped water below.
As the waves got higher and the water rougher, with the clouds growing darker, she started recording the scene.
“I’m like, ‘Oooh, check the water out,’ ” Carr told The Star on Friday. “I’ve never seen a lake look like that; it was what I would think the ocean would look like, with the whitecaps.
“I was just videoing the water and then looked to the left and I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”
There in the lake, struggling to move through the waves, was a Ride the Ducks boat. Then another one not far away.
Carr, of Joplin, kept recording, never imagining what would happen in the next 10 to 15 minutes. Or that her video would go viral.
Thursday was Carr’s first time on the Branson Belle. It was the 15th wedding anniversary for Carr and her husband, Jeff, and they were there to celebrate.
Because the Belle was docked, its passengers paid attention to the duck boats.
“The more everybody on my boat got on the boat, they were coming to the window and looking out,” Carr said.
“It was sad. There was nothing none of us could do,” she said. “People were calling family members. I called my daughter.”
At one point, Carr began to pray.
Oh, Lord, please help those people. Be with them. Please let them be OK.
One crew member on the Branson Belle assured passengers: “It’s OK, those boats are made for this. They can handle it, they can handle it.”
As she spoke on Friday, Carr was sitting in a parked pickup truck alone, trying to process what she’d seen.
“It’s hitting me now,” she said, her voice breaking.
She said she’s been attacked on social media for her video. She said she’s been called mean names and asked why she didn’t try to help instead of recording the incident.
She reiterated that there was nothing that the people on the Branson Belle could do. One of the crew members tried to call 911 several times and couldn’t get through initially. The Belle’s captain also was calling for help.
“You can say you would do this, and you would do that,” Carr said. “But when push comes to shove and it actually happens, you don’t know what you’re going to do. Your emotions take over.”
‘That could be anyone’
Trent Behr and his girlfriend, Allison Lester, don’t know how many victims of the boating tragedy were wearing life jackets, but they are sure that at least one woman was not.
Lester, 20, ran to help rescue one of the victims from the water. Behr said he was prepared to perform CPR on the woman, but a paramedic was on the scene by the time the woman was taken from the water, unconscious.
“She was pregnant,” Lester said.
The couple had come down from Sioux City, Iowa, on Wednesday night to spend time with Lester’s aunt, who has a home at the lake. On Thursday, they had spent time at a local water park. They then boarded the Branson Belle for dinner and a show. Right away they saw the two duck boats struggling. They watched from the railing, afraid for those on board.
“When we first got on, we looked out the window and we saw them,” Behr said. “They looked like they were going to go down.”
Behr shot some video with his cellphone, but they returned to their seats, afraid of what they might see.
“We don’t really want to watch this anymore,” Lester said they thought.
Within minutes, Behr said, the captain of the showboat began to yell for his crew. He alerted them that one of the duck boats had capsized. People were tossed into the water. Behr and Lester ran to the railing again, then down to the first level of the showboat to see if they could help. They saw crew from the showboat jump into the water to try to rescue people.
Behr said he saw a green purse float to the top of the water. They saw the woman floating, unconscious. The crew, Behr and others helped drag the woman from the water. Medics rushed her to the hospital. The couple said they have no idea if she lived or was injured.
“We don’t know. She was just unconscious,” Behr said.
“We’re shaken,” Lester said. “We’re just standing there, like, ‘How could this have happened?’ Surreal.”
“That could be us out there,” Behr said. “That could be anyone.”
‘I just went into emergency mode’
The weather was beautiful when Regina Yost and her family boarded the Branson Belle.
“It was clear and nice,” she said. “We even took pictures for a few seconds.”
But soon she noticed that the boat wasn’t boarding any other passengers and that dark rain clouds were rolling in. In a matter of minutes, she said, there was a “tremendous storm.”
“The weather was just unbelievable,” Yost said Friday. “I live on the coast of North Carolina, and it was as bad as any hurricane I’ve seen.”
Yost and her family, who traveled from several states for a summer vacation, watched as the two duck boats attempted to get back to shore. The first boat made it back to land safely, but the second one sank shortly after.
“The captain of our boat just started running around the boat yelling, ‘They went down, they went down, someone call 911,’” she said.
Immediately, Yost, a trauma nurse, and her husband, a former Marine, found a way off the Belle to go help people coming from the sunken boat. Other relatives also tried to pull people out of the water.
“I just went into emergency mode and did what I know how to do,” she said.
Yost helped pull at least four people out of the water and began triage efforts with them, including CPR and checking for injuries.
“They were all in shock,” she said of those they were able to pull out.
Yost directed her father, a pastor, to keep victims attentive so they wouldn’t go unresponsive.
“I told him to keep them awake and that they needed to breathe real deep,” she said. “One was an 11-year-old girl that had taken in a lot of water, and she needed quite a bit of attention. He just kept saying, ‘Look at me and breathe.’”