Missouri

‘The untold story’: A family of 9 was on Branson duck boat when it sank. All survived.

Last week, on a sunny day with a storm in the forecast, six families boarded Stretch Duck 07 in Branson.

Every family lost someone when the boat sank into Table Rock Lake, killing more than half of the 31 passengers.

Every family, that is, but one.

All the members of a family of nine survived — an outcome that defies probability to the point of qualifying as unbelievable, said Mandi Keller of Texas, a member of the family who wasn’t on the boat.

“It is a miracle. A complete miracle,” she said by phone.

Keller is 15-year-old Gillian Collins’ mother.

“My daughter, her dad and the rest of the family are all surviving miracles.”

The unlikely survival of the entire family astonished a first responder there that night.

“To me, that’s really the most remarkable piece to all of this,” said Steve Martin, a chaplain with the Missouri Highway Patrol and Nixa Fire Department. “It’s the untold story.”

Martin was at Branson City Hall to receive the family Thursday night after they were shuttled there, together, unbroken.

“They themselves have no explanation,” he said. “They’re dumbfounded (as to) how they all made it out.”

The family is also grappling with survivor’s guilt, Martin told The Star Sunday inside Williams Memorial Chapel on the College of the Ozarks campus.

He spoke to dozens gathered inside the church to pay their respects after the horror on the lake.

Tucked away into his prayer, easy to miss, were words he spoke directly to the family.

“Lord, for those who have lost such important parts of their family, we pray for healing and peace that can only come by your power,” he said.

“And for others who have survived who are dealing with the traumatic stress of being separated and the guilt of surviving, I pray that you protect them as well, that you give them strength to find their way.”

Tia Coleman provided the family of nine a sense of absolution at the service, Martin said.

Coleman, the woman who lost nine of her relatives, including her husband and three children, told members of the family in attendance to let go of their guilt.

“I’m thankful that all of your family survived,” she told them, Martin said. “God has a purpose for you.”

“She is filled with joy,” Martin said of Coleman. “It makes her smile, the thought that they all will be able to go home together where her family cannot go home together.

“That was the power of bringing them together like this.”

The members of the family remaining whole, according to a Missouri Highway Patrol report, are 15-year-old Gillian and her father and stepmother, Shayne and Tiffany Collins; and the rest of their family: Cayden, Chloe and Tomlin McDonald; Tayden Kimbley; Talyssa Mann; and Ronita McKinley.

Only one, McKinley, 64, was injured. She was in serious condition after coming out of the water but has since been discharged from the hospital, Martin said.

Keller believes her family “will always feel guilty.”

But they shouldn’t, Martin said.

He said the family was traumatized that night after they all narrowly escaped death.

He knows of no good explanation for how or why the family survived.

“They didn’t survive because they stuck together or planned how to navigate,” Martin said.

The youngest member of the family, a 10-year-old, told Martin he felt the waves pushing him toward the Showboat Branson Belle, a large riverboat nearby.

“The Branson Belle — it was good for some and not as good for others,” Martin said.

The family of nine found safety by climbing up a paddle on the rear of the Belle, or clinging to the side of the riverboat until bystanders came to hoist them to safety.

“The only thing I can say with consistency is that they all ended up in different places and found safety in different ways,” Martin said.

“There was incredible trauma: not knowing where your family (members) are, seeing your children trying to swim and not being able to help them as much as you would like and of course the chaos going on around them as people are (drowning).

“There was no rhyme or reason to why, why all nine of them lived and every other family unit lost people.”

The five other families on the boat all lost people. The boat went down with a two-member crew, and only one duck boat employee came out of the water alive.

William Asher and Rosemarie Hamann were a loving couple who enjoyed music and dancing. They lived in the St. Louis suburb of Affton. They both died.

bill asher 1.jpg
William Asher and Rose Hamann were known as the life of the party and lovers of old music. Gene Ackmann

Another couple, Janice and William Bright, also died. Their deaths caused William Bright’s sister, Karen Abbott, to “fall apart.”

brights 18485627_1341157992665276_3008908133840063245__fitted.jpeg
William and Janice Bright Courtesy of the family

The Colemans, all 11 of them, were a tight-knit family who, when they went on vacations together, often picked places with water and enjoyed swimming and unwinding in hot tubs.

Nine of them died. Two survived, including Tia Coleman.

Tia coleman
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

Alicia Dennison, 12, was on a special trip with her grandmother, Leslie Dennison, who sacrificed herself to save her granddaughter by giving her a push toward the surface before sinking into deeper water.

Resized95201807209508065595341_fitted.jpeg
Alicia Dennison, 12, survived the duck boat horror on Table Rock Lake in Branson. “I thought we were all going to sink and die,” she said. Courtesy of the family

Loren Smith, 14, was with her family: Steve Smith, 53, and Lance, 15. When Loren emerged from the water, she’d learn she came back to a world without a father or brother.

072018 Duckboatvigil JFS
Mourners gather in the parking lot of the Ride the Ducks offices in Branson, Missouri, during Friday's July 20, 2018, candlelight vigil for the victims of the Branson duck boat tragedy at Table Rock Lake. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

Bob Williams, a crew member, died. Kenneth McKee, who operated the boat, survived.

pastor driver.JPG
Bob Williams’ family in Rhode Island, where he’d lived before retiring to Branson, remembered him as a deeply religious man who founded a local church. Mourners paid tribute to him at his funeral July 24, 2018 in Branson. Twitter

The mayor of Branson, Karen Best, was wearing a large heart-shaped pendant as she spoke to those assembled inside the College of the Ozarks chapel.

It will always remind her of the 17 who died who “changed my heart forever.”

“I’m also reminded of the 14 (surviving) individuals whose hearts were broken.

“To those families on the duck, please know you will always, always, always be a part of our family, and you will always remain in our heart.”

Read Next

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments