The duck boats that carried dozens of people on land and water around Table Rock Lake had a different mission when they were created in the 1940s.
Built to transport soldiers from ship to shore during World War II, they were modified decades later for tourism. That worried some safety advocates. What would happen if those boats, now jammed with up to three times as many passengers as soldiers, took on water?
The boats, though, appeared to have a secret safety weapon — the Higgins, a powerful bilge pump that could push out as much as 250 gallons of water per minute from the bottom of the boat.
But when one of the those boats sank in July on Table Rock Lake near Branson, killing 17 people, that pump could not do its job.
That’s because the Higgins — nicknamed the “super bilge” — had been removed from Stretch Duck 07, The Star has learned.
More than three months after the tragedy, with lawsuits cramming dockets in federal and state courts and a criminal investigation ongoing, it’s still not clear why the original powerful pump was removed.
“No way I would have signed off on removing those bilge pumps. No way in hell,” said Timothy Jones, who was a mechanic for six years on similar World War II-era boats owned by Ozark Mountain Water Ducks. “That pump right there is one of the main safety features, because if it does take on water, that pump can empty out the bottom of a duck in less than a minute. It’s quick.”
Court records obtained by The Star show that the Higgins pump in Stretch Duck 07 had been replaced with electric bilge pumps. And a lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley alleges that the company “did not conform to” federal safety recommendations by failing to replace the Higgins with a “pump of equivalent or greater capacity.”
The Star examined dozens of duck boat inspections conducted by the Coast Guard and found references to other Higgins pumps that had been replaced in recent years with electric bilge pumps capable of extracting just 20 gallons of water or less per minute — or less than one-tenth the pumping capacity of a Higgins.
Additionally, 11 of the 22 Branson stretch ducks have had bilge pump issues in the past 3½ years, including Stretch Duck 07 and Stretch Duck 54, the two on Table Rock Lake that night. Stretch Duck 54 struggled in the wind and waves but made it back to shore.
A Coast Guard document from 2000 containing guidelines for inspection of amphibious passenger vehicles says that “the modification of a DUKW for commercial passenger service presents a unique challenge.”
That document notes that “obviously, not all modifications took into consideration all aspects of land and water operations or safety.”
It also confirms that some boats no longer are equipped with Higgins bilge pumps. Included on a list of what the Coast Guard calls typical modifications found on the DUKWs now used for carrying passengers: “Removal of the forward bilge pump and disabling the original Higgins bilge pump.”
The Higgins was one of two bilge pumping systems on the original DUKWs. One pump was for normal operations, and the Higgins — which is powered by the engine — was for extreme conditions.
Its “dewatering” capacity of 250 gallons per minute, according to the Coast Guard, “was to allow the vehicle to sustain damage and operate in difficult conditions defined by the War Department as surf at shore over 3 feet, wind over 15 mph and wave height at launching ship over 3 feet.”
Federal authorities continue to investigate the fatal boat sinking on Table Rock Lake.
A similar investigation nearly two decades ago showed how crucial a Higgins pump could be. After a fatal duck boat disaster in Arkansas, a federal safety board found that if the super pump had been working, lives would have been saved.
On July 19 this year, the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph — near hurricane force — with waves topping three feet.
The first 911 call about the Branson duck boat came at 7:09 p.m., 14 minutes after the boat entered the water.
Court documents indicate that two Ride the Ducks captains — both on the stormy lake that night in separate boats — are targets of the federal probe. They are under investigation for allegedly operating their vessels in a manner that endangered lives.
Capt. Kenneth “Scott” McKee, captain of the sunken Stretch Duck 07, and Barry King, captain of Stretch Duck 54, “are aware of their status as targets of the Government action,” according to court filings.
Ripley Entertainment purchased Ride the Ducks Branson from Herschend Family Entertainment in December 2017. The tour boats have not been operating in Branson since the tragedy.
Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a Ripley spokeswoman, said she could not answer any questions regarding the Higgins pump and when and why it was removed from some duck boats.
“Because the investigation and related litigation are ongoing, we cannot comment on any specifics regarding them,” she said.
Duck boats aren’t required to have the original pumps. But the fear is if they are removed and not replaced with bilge pumps that are as powerful, safety could be sacrificed.
Still unknown with Stretch Duck 07 is whether the replacement electric bilge pumps had the capacity to discharge enough water as the boat struggled in the churning lake. Also unknown: were the conditions so bad that night that no pump would have kept the boat from sinking.
Coast Guard officials say they cannot release any additional information. They say they’ve been instructed to send all questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri. That office says it, too, is unable to answer questions.
“We have an ongoing federal criminal investigation, and in light of that investigation, we are not able to release information related to the case,” spokesman Don Ledford said.
On many crucial details related to the tragedy, the public and victims may be kept in the dark for years.
Federal prosecutors are fighting to keep information from being released, insisting that disclosure would hamper their ongoing criminal investigation. If charges are filed, that would only further delay the release of records.
“There’s a lot of secrecy here, that’s for sure,” said Gerald McGonagle, a Kansas City attorney who represents the family of a Higginsville couple who died when the boat sank. “How is that fair? These people want answers as to why their relatives died. They want answers as to how this happened. And they deserve to know. They want to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again.”
After World War II, many DUKW boats were sold and converted to commercial excursion boats and made popular in tourist areas like Branson, Philadelphia and the Wisconsin Dells.
Those familiar with these tour boats question why the Higgins bilge pump was removed in the first place.
“The Higgins pump is an extremely high-capacity, quality pump,” said Hank LaBarbara, owner of the Chicago DUKW Corp., which restores and sells original World War II-era duck boats. ”I would never say it’s OK to remove one. Why do it?”
LaBarbara acknowledged that bilge pumps can break down and need replacing. Often, however, they’re discarded when duck boats are lengthened, or “stretched,” to accommodate more passengers, he said.
It makes no sense to allow duck boat operators to remove the high-powered pump, said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation. She said, however, that duck boats have fewer regulations than other vessels, including personal watercraft.
“Anyone who has a personal watercraft will think, ‘Wait a minute. I’m not allowed to do that,’ ” she said. “But they let these duck boat operators do that.
“They’re just so old and have been modified so much, they kind of fall in no-man’s land. It’s almost like it’s a loophole craft. It just doesn’t fit neatly into any category. And that’s why it ought to have special legislation devoted to it.”
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill has introduced a measure calling for safety improvements, which would include independent electric bilge pumps to supplement — not replace — the Higgins pump.
Jones, the mechanic who worked on duck boats, said that if the company replaced the Higgins pump on some of the boats, the replacement should have been able to pump out as much water per minute — or even more.
“Why they were able to remove it, how they got away with removing it, is beyond me,” Jones said. “There’s no reason to take them out.”
For Schiavo, it was painful to watch a video of Stretch Duck 07 struggling in the water before it went down. The video was taken by a woman on the Showboat Branson Belle, which was docked that night.
“The thing that struck me was it just kept getting lower and lower in the water as the water was coming over the sides,” Schiavo said. “So I wondered if the bilge system was working, because if you’re getting water over the sides of the boat and the bilges are working, you ought to be able to keep up. But it clearly wasn’t.”
Because the DUKWs also operated on land they were built differently than regular boats, with more holes in the hull for the drive shafts. That created the potential for uncontrolled flooding in a DUKW, the Coast Guard has said. And, it said, the failure of even one of those shaft-housing seals could result in major flooding.
That increased flooding risk, the Coast Guard said, was offset by the installation of the Higgins pumps.
Yet the passenger duck boats aren’t required to have them.
Passenger boats like the Ride the Ducks vessel that sank in Table Rock Lake are only required to have two smaller bilge pumps — one with a pumping capacity of 10 gallons per minute and a second with a pumping capacity of 5 to 10 gallons per minute.
Some say that’s not nearly enough. They question why the regulation is so lenient.
And why did the duck boat industry and regulators ignore the lessons learned from the 1999 tragedy that killed 13?
In May of that year, the Miss Majestic began taking on water on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas. According to eight survivors, it sank within 15 seconds to one minute.
The Coast Guard later found that the Higgins pump was not working that day. The boat’s three electric bilge pumps had discharge capacities that totaled less than 34 gallons per minute. Even if the electric pumps were all working, the Coast Guard said, they could not have overcome the calculated flood rate of 220 gallons per minute.
“However, the Higgins bilge pump has a capacity of about 250 gpm at full throttle and theoretically would have been capable of overcoming the calculated flood rate,” the Coast Guard report said.
Had the pump been working, the Coast Guard said, it “would likely have been able to keep up with flooding, or at least allowed time to beach the Miss Majestic.”
And saved lives.