Crews took less than an hour Monday morning to recover the Ride the Ducks boat from 80 feet of lake water. Once the vessel broke the surface, two small American flags remained intact on the front. The metal structure supporting the canopy was still in place, but part of the covering was open. Life jackets dangled from the frame.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board took custody of the duck boat as questions piled up about whether last Thursday’s tragedy — which killed 17 of the 31 people on board — could have been prevented.
Among the most critical questions: Why weren’t weather warnings heeded, who made the final call to take the boat out and why weren’t any life vests used?
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NTSB officials have said they want to know what information the duck boat company and captain had before someone made the decision to take the boat out when potential severe weather had been on the radar for several hours. The National Weather Service issued a thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m. and specifically mentioned Table Rock Lake.
Six minutes later, at 6:38 p.m., the county dispatchers reiterated the warning and said there could be damage to roofs, siding and trees. The first 911 call about the duck boat came in at 7:09.
“You need to respond to the (Showboat) Branson Belle,” a Stone County Public Safety Dispatcher said in one of the first calls, according to audio captured on Broadcastify.com. “... For a Duck that has sunk.”
Federal investigators also will look at the policies and procedures in place at Ride the Ducks.
“That’s going to help us put where the liability is,” said Lt. Tasha Sadowicz, spokeswoman for the U.S. Coast Guard’s regional office in St. Louis. “Is it company policy that they decide when the boats go out or is it the captain’s call? Or did the captain go against what the company said?
“There are just a lot of questions we just don’t know the answers to right now.”
Earlier Monday, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Scott Stoermer said at a news conference that the decisions to go out on the water and whether to tell passengers to use life jackets were under investigation.
Another crucial component was the life vests. None of the passengers on the boat was wearing one when the boat began to take on water and eventually sank. Five children, four of them under the age of 10, died.
While Missouri state law requires recreational boaters under 7 years old to wear life jackets at all times on the water, duck boats do not have that requirement because they’re considered regulated vessels, Sadowicz said. The boats are, however, required to have enough personal flotation devices for all passengers and crew, including appropriately-sized jackets for all children on board.
That exemption frustrates one former federal transportation official.
“That’s just nuts,” said Mary Schiavo, who served as U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General from 1990 to 1996. “You need to have everyone in a vest age 13 and under, not just 6 and under. Kiddos hang on the rail, they run around. Kiddos have got to be in a life vest.”
Why the exemption for commercial vessels?
“I assume they think if it’s a commercial vessel, they have a higher standard,” she said. “But that doesn’t appear to be the case with duck boats that are 1944 vintage.”
The Coast Guard and the NTSB are conducting joint and separate investigations into the actions and conditions that led to the sinking, the Coast Guard said. And the Missouri Highway Patrol is conducting an investigation into any possible negligence or failures by the boat company and its employees.
“We are continuing to follow up on any leads we have,” said Sgt. Jason Pace, a spokesman with the patrol’s Troop D. “We’re talking to everyone. ... If there is a criminal element, it will be handled appropriately.”
The boat company, Ride the Ducks, coordinated Monday morning’s recovery under the Coast Guard’s watch.
The Highway Patrol’s divers photographed the boat extensively where it lay at the bottom of the lake in case the process of raising the boat created any new damage, Stoermer said.
Divers entered the water shortly before 9:30 a.m. and attached cables to the sunken boat, which rested about 80 feet below the surface. A crane on a barge began lifting the boat to the surface shortly after 10 a.m.
The duck boat surfaced about 200 yards from the concrete ramp that it was trying to reach in Thursday’s storm.
Once the boat was brought to the surface, crews began pumping out water. They raised the front end to drain out more water. The crews let the boat float for several minutes to test its stability, then towed it toward the shore where a trailer waited.
On Saturday, investigators retrieved a video recorder from the sunken duck boat and sent it to Washington, D.C., for analysis. They also obtained video recorders from a second duck boat that had made it safely to shore and from the Showboat Branson Belle, which was docked nearby when the duck boat submerged.
Stoermer declined to comment on the condition of the boat, because it is part of the investigation. The canopy was seen opened, with unused life jackets tangled in the top.
Stoermer thanked the cooperation of the Highway Patrol, Stone County sheriff’s office, the city of Branson and the Showboat Branson Belle in aiding in the salvaging of the boat.
The Showboat Branson Belle, whose patrons watched the terror unfold Thursday, was closed and silent Monday as the salvage team raised the duck boat some 50 yards from the showboat’s giant red paddle wheel.
The Star’s Cortlynn Stark contributed to this report.