‘I didn’t want to die’: Survivors describe chaos as Branson duck boat sank, killing 17

The last thing she remembers thinking as she went limp, letting the rough water take her, was that if her children had drowned, then she should, too.

“I didn’t know where anybody was, so when I finally realized I was rescued, I still wasn’t happy because I didn’t know where my family was,” said Tia Coleman, 34, of Indianapolis.

Moments earlier, Coleman remembers, she had hit her head on the canopy of a duck boat. The amphibious craft, which traverses land and lake and has roots in the World War II era, had filled with water and was sinking to the bottom of Table Rock Lake in Branson.

She was surrounded by three generations of her family. Her husband, Glenn. Her sons, Reece and Evan, and her daughter, Arya. A young nephew, Maxwell Coleman, just 2 years old. And five other relatives, including a sister-, father- and mother-in-law.

All of them died but two.

Tia Coleman survived, along with her 13-year-old nephew, Donovan Hall.

“I don’t know if there is a recovery from it,” she said Saturday from a wheelchair at a Branson hospital.

Seventeen people died when Stretch Duck 07, the official name given the vessel by Ripley Entertainment, sank to the bottom of the lake. More than half of them were Coleman’s relatives.

A series of safety lapses led to their deaths.

Before hitting the water, the duck crew dismissed weather warnings and went onto the water. They were aware of the coming storm because they shifted the itinerary of the 70-minute tour, choosing to hit the water first in an attempt to beat the storm.

“Above you are your life jackets,” a crew member said to the passengers, Coleman recalled. “I’m going to show you where they are, but you won’t need them.”

“So I didn’t grab them,” Coleman said.

Alicia Dennison, 12, was on the ride with her grandmother, Leslie Dennison.

Alicia remembers a passenger, citing the Weather Channel’s forecast, saying they shouldn’t be on the water.

“I don’t think they should have brought out the boats,” Alicia said by phone from her home in Milan, Ill. “I thought we were all going to sink and die.”

High waves kicked up by fierce winds splashed against the vessel. Water began trickling in, filling the boat’s floor slowly, but then suddenly “all the waves just came in and it started to sink,” Alicia said.

Plastic curtains covered the windows, obstructing those potential exits, Alicia said.

A crew member on a duck boat that had gone out one day before told passengers that, in the event of a water emergency, “we’d go out through the windows on the sides.”

As Alicia’s boat went under, she remembers being pinned to the canopy overhead, the same type of canopy that the National Transportation Safety Board concluded contributed to a similar mass casualty when a duck boat sank in 1999 in Arkansas.

Thirteen people died then.

Alicia remembers the moment the canopy seemed to disappear, and she was able suddenly to swim toward the surface. She said it felt like a minute underwater before the canopy came away.

Alicia had tried to retrieve a life jacket as the boat became swamped. But the life jacket, stored overhead, was stuck and she couldn’t pull it down.

Footage shared with The Star shows a crew member on a voyage one day before telling passengers, “What you do is you grab the black strap, unsnap it. Take the personal flotation device off the shelf.”

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Life jackets sit above seats in a duck boat parked at the Ride the Ducks offices on Saturday, July 21, 2018, in Branson, Mo. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

Alicia described the panicked moments inside the sinking duck boat, where you could “hardly do anything. ... Everybody was just screaming.”

None of the 31 passengers on board was found wearing a life jacket, according to the Missouri Highway Patrol.

“My only thing that angers me is that life vests should be easily accessible at all times,” said Alicia’s mother, Shaunna Cumberworth. “They should be right there within reach. For times like that, you should be able to grab one in a split second.”

Alicia’s grandmother gave her a push toward the surface before she drowned.

“Without her, I would have died,” Alicia said, “because she saved my life.”

Coleman wonders why she survived while so many of her family didn’t.

In the frantic moments as the boat went under, she asked God to “let me get to my babies.”

She remembers how cool the water was when the canopy finally released, too cold to be anywhere near the surface of Table Rock. She remembers kicking her way to the surface and crying for help despite water-filled lungs.

Before she was able to breathe again, as she panicked for herself and her children around her, she remembers telling God: “If they don’t make it, then take me, too. There’s no reason for me to be here.”

A GoFundMe account established for Tia Coleman’s family has raised more than $250,000 of a $500,000 goal.