How Branson mayor leads in duck boat tragedy: ‘Being strong is showing vulnerability’

Branson Mayor Karen Best spent much of last Thursday, July 19, meeting with business owners planning the town’s big Christmas celebration.

And then a storm kicked up. She had no idea how ferocious, how deadly, it would be.

Early that evening, Best was home working on personal tax papers when the bad weather alarm sounded on her cellphone. No big deal. Storms come and go all the time in this Missouri mountain town.

The 58-year-old mayor fancies herself a storm watcher. She stood on her porch talking on the phone with her dad, who lives six doors down, watching the clouds roll in and the wind swirl up debris. It was moving fast. By the time she stepped back inside, the rain had started and the lights flickered off and on.

She got a text from a neighbor who listens to police scanners: “What’s going on at the Show Boat? It looks like they are giving CPR to someone on shore and they are talking like others are in the water,” the text said.

Before the night would end, Best learned that a Ride the Ducks boat was overcome by giant waves on Table Rock Lake and sank with 31 people aboard. Seventeen of them, including nine of 11 members of one family, died.

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Survivors and witnesses said later that no one was wearing life jackets and that victims were trapped by a canopy and the closed plastic windows.

Best called her city administrator, Stan Dobbins. “I wanted him to keep me up to date.” He went to the scene.

“The hard part about this for the city of Branson is that it was not in our city limits, so we were not the lead agency,” Best said.

The boat sank in nearby Stone County. The county sheriff’s department, fire department, Missouri Highway Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard were in charge.

“We became the agency that was going to be in charge of family support,” said Best, a retired school principal who during her 20 years as an education leader had been trained how to handle a crisis. Best had taught school for 10 years in Iowa, Oklahoma and Missouri before becoming an assistant principal in the St. Louis area and eventually a principal in Springfield, Mo. Now she sells residential and commercial real estate.

“I wanted to go to the scene,” she said. “I’m not a first responder, and I knew going to the scene only meant I would be in the way. The best thing for me to do was stand down.”

Waiting was hard. “I’m feeling lost, I’m feeling overwhelmed, I’m feeling sadness, anxiety, a range of emotions,” Best recalled.

The daughter of a minister, Best started praying — “for first responders, for the victims.”

About 90 minutes after she got the text, around 9 p.m., Best arrived at Branson City Hall, where the city’s fire chief and city administrator had set up a command center. Families looking for loved ones who’d been on the boat could go there for answers.

“I know whatever I do in the next 24 hours has to be as positive as positive can be,” Best remembers thinking. “People look for a leader who is strong. But sometimes being strong is showing vulnerability.”

That night, Best said, she had to be both a strong leader in charge of the command center and a compassionate woman, hugging family and listening.

“You are the face of the city,” she said. “But at that time you are not the mayor. You are the representative of every person who lives and works in this town. I felt it was important for them to know that the city was there to support them.”

Karen Best.JPG
Karen Best, a retired high school principal, became Branson’s mayor in 2015. Here she wears a Branson Emergency Rescue T-shirt. She calls the first-responders there heroes. Mará Rose Williams mdwilliams@kcstar.com

Best has lived in Branson for only 16 years, but she’s been visiting the family vacation town, full of amusements, music and magic shows, since she was a kid growing up an only child in Springfield. She has never married and has no children. She lives alone, with her parents close by, and she likes it that way.

She had lived there 13 years when she ran for mayor and unseated longtime incumbent Raeanne Presley, whose family is partly responsible for turning Branson into an entertainment town. Folks had asked Best to run. She figured it would take a few tries before she would win the seat.

On the day she won she looked at her dad, “and said I don’t know nothing about being no mayor,” she said, laughing as she retold the story. “I found out it’s like being a principal. My directors are like my teachers. Teachers know what to do in the classroom to make it work. My directors know what to do to make the city work.”

Now she is serving her second two-year term.

On most days as mayor of Branson, she said, the biggest issues are complaints about potholes and signs.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to fielding complaints about potholes and signs,” she said. “They don’t seem as frustrating now as they did before.”

A little more than a year into the job, Best had to deal with the aftermath of a major flood in Branson. Three people, visitors to the city, were killed. One was a basketball coach.

“It took us several days before we recovered her body,” Best recalled.

Memories of that experience played in Best’s head the night she learned about the duck boat sinking.

“I didn’t want these families to go through what families had gone through back then,” she said.

The community stepped up, she said. Not just first responders and water rescue teams, whom Best calls heroes, but also employees of the Showboat Branson Belle, which was docked nearby.

“Employees of the Branson Belle did extraordinary things that night,” Best said. Several jumped in the water to save people, and others threw life jackets to people struggling against the rough water.

That same night, a fire broke out in Branson, and a power line fell across the tracks for the Branson Scenic Railway track, which shuttles people from Branson to Arkansas and back. The downed line meant the train couldn’t return to Branson, and its passengers were stranded. Best needed vans and buses to transport more than 200 people.

“I put out a call to the community,” she said. “Within minutes people responded.”

Later, when the bodies of all 17 duck boat victims were found and identified, Best began planning a public memorial, held that Sunday. “I planned the memorial in part to honor and pay tribute to the victims, their families, the survivors and the heroes in the community.”

Best gushed over how “the community came together” after the tragedy. She mentioned the high school students who were working the marina that night and the hotel workers who managed to find rooms for relatives of victims during a weekend when nearly all accommodations were booked up.

Then there were the entertainers who kept performing after such a hard blow to the community. Best went to talk with the them. “I wanted to let them know how important what they do is. It heals a lot of broken hearts. It’s hard to do what they did. How do you go out and be funny after so many people lost their lives?”

Before Best could move forward to help her city heal, she said, she had to do some healing of her own.

Wednesday night, six days after the sinking, she checked into the Chateau on the Lake, one of the town’s biggest hotels and resorts.

“I wanted to be near the lake,” she said. Best sat on the balcony of her hotel room and wrote about the week’s journey on her laptop. Sometimes she had to stop and walk away because the memories were tough. She started writing at 2 p.m. and finished her last sentence at 10 p.m.

She has recommended to her staff that they, too, take 24 hours for themselves, “to decompress. It’s been a hard week.”

A week after 17 people died on Table Rock Lake, visitors still came in a steady stream to the roadside memorial near the Ride the Ducks parking lot in Branson. Mará Rose Williams mdwilliams@kcstar.com

She knows that visitors to town are still curious about what happened, and why. Best has questions too. She’s waiting on the results of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation for those details and said that could take a year.

In the meantime she’s fielding questions from the media about whether the city wants the duck boats to stay.

“If the city wanted to shut the duck boats down, we could no more do that than we could a Starbucks,” Best said. “The city’s responsibility for Ride the Ducks is its business license and its travel on our city streets. For Ride the Ducks to shut down, there would have to be a serious safety violation.”

Duck boats lined up in the parking lot of Ride The Ducks attraction in Branson. File photo

For right now the Ride the Ducks attraction is closed, and visitors have constructed a roadside memorial nearby. Feelings about the attraction and its future in Branson are mixed.

The mayor said her first concern, and the concern of the other city leaders, is that attractions in Branson are safe. She wants people in the community to have time to process the tragedy. She wants them to know that it’s OK to begin to have fun again.

“We are a very strong community of faith, flag, family and friends,” she said. “Twenty-nine people on that boat came to this community as strangers and they left as family,” she said of the passengers aboard with the captain and driver. “We know every one of their names, every one of their incredible stories. That’s because of the spirit of this town.”

But Best knows the tragedy on Table Rock Lake was a story that went around the world. “We heard from Paris, London, Rome from Canada,” she said.

“I think moving forward there will be people who decide they don’t want to come to Branson” because of the tragedy, Best said. “But I also think there will be people who saw the story and the community response, the human spirit of a small town coming together, and a lot of people want that. I believe people will come wanting to honor those who lost their lives and pay tribute to this community. “