Memorial service includes duck boat survivors, victims’ families
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.
“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.
Another couple, Janice and William Bright, also died. Their deaths caused William Bright’s sister, Karen Abbott, to “fall apart.”
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.
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.
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.
Bob Williams, a crew member, died. Kenneth McKee, who operated the boat, survived.
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.”