Duck boat battled winds twice what Coast Guard allowed. Who sent it still a mystery

The duck boat that sank near Branson last month, killing 17 people, never should have been on the water that evening, according to a document released Wednesday.

The U.S. Coast Guard provided a copy of Stretch Duck 07’s Certificate of Inspection, which sets conditions under which the vessel can operate. Those include the number of passengers, weather and use of life preservers.

The Branson boat’s certificate — which The Star requested immediately after the July 19 tragedy — set stringent guidelines for wind and water conditions.

“Vessel shall not be operated waterborne when winds exceed 35 mph, and/or the wave height exceeds two feet,” said the certificate issued in February 2017.

Yet the duck boat owned by Ripley Entertainment entered Table Rock Lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. That alert included Table Rock Lake and warned of winds in excess of 60 mph.

In reality, winds on the lake hit 73 mph with waves of more than 3 feet.

The Coast Guard also said Wednesday that it had launched a Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of Stretch Duck 07. That board will conduct the agency’s highest level of investigation.

“Our hearts go out to the victims as well as the families and friends that have been impacted by this terrible tragedy that occurred in Branson,” said Capt. Wayne Arguin, chairman of the Marine Board of Investigation, in Wednesday’s news release. “The Coast Guard will conduct a thorough and detailed investigation to identify all potential causal factors associated with this tragedy.”

The five-member board will analyze all aspects of the sinking, including the events leading up to the deadly disaster on Table Rock Lake. The board will determine whether the boat and company were in compliance with Coast Guard regulations.

The board also will decide whether there is evidence that any misconduct, negligence or willful violation of the law contributed to the tragedy. Or, did the Coast Guard or any other government agency or person play a role?

In response to the Branson incident, the Coast Guard has directed all officers in charge of marine inspections, as well as vessel owners and operators, to review their routes and conditions and their company operations manuals. They also should conduct extensive training and drills, the Coast Guard said.

According to the certificate of inspection, the company violated limitations put in place for severe weather.

When the boat started its water tour at 6:55 p.m. on July 19 the lake appeared calm. Around that time, emergency crews in Taney County began responding to calls about toppled trees and downed power lines caused by the storm.

Just after 7 p.m., whitecaps were visible on the water and winds increased, according to an initial report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Friday. Less than a minute later, the captain of the Ride the Ducks boat made a comment about the storm, the NTSB report said, without any further explanation.

By 7:09 p.m., the first 911 call about the struggling boat came in.

It still isn’t clear who made the decision to send the boat on the lake during the weather warning. Meteorologists had been eyeing the predicted storm since 11:30 a.m. when a watch was issued.

The boat tour was initially set to begin on land, its usual course. Tickets said the tour would start at 6:30 p.m.

Before the first passengers boarded, an individual stepped onto the back of the boat at 6:28 p.m. and told the crew to conduct the water portion of the tour first, the NTSB said.

In total, 29 passengers and two crew members were on the boat when it sank. That number is within Coast Guard regulations, according to the vessel’s Certificate of Inspection, which expires in February 2022.

The Stone County coroner, John Cunnyngham, said Wednesday that he has certified 16 of the 17 fatalities as deaths by drowning. He is still awaiting an autopsy report on one of the victims before signing the final death certificate in the tragedy.

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