New details of Branson’s sunken duck boat revealed in Coast Guard safety records

Newly obtained U.S. Coast Guard records provide more proof that the Branson duck boat that sank in July, killing 17, should not have been on the wind-whipped water that evening.

Documents requested by The Star reveal that years before the tragedy on Table Rock Lake, Ride the Ducks Branson asked the Coast Guard for approval to remove a powerful water discharging pump from its fleet. The Coast Guard approved the request, but later put some conditions in place if the pump had been removed.

One of those conditions in particular stands out: The boats were not to operate on the lake if waves exceeded two feet.

The night Stretch Duck 07 went down, they were nearly twice that.

“They totally disregarded that requirement when they went out in the weather that they did,” said Jim Allen, a Florida marine safety expert who served 30 years in the Coast Guard and has spent more than two decades as a consultant. “It wouldn’t matter whether they were 50 feet off shore or 50 miles off shore. Two feet is two feet.”

Also in the documents: the boat’s previous owner maintained that if the boats ran into trouble, they could make it back quickly because their routes didn’t take them far from shore.

The new records give further detail on why the powerful water pumps were removed and what the duck boat company had to do in order to satisfy the Coast Guard’s concerns about safety.

Ripley Entertainment, which purchased the Branson duck boat company in December 2017, said Friday that the Coast Guard approved the removal of the powerful bilge pump and has provided oversight to make sure the boats were safe and following regulations. And regarding the weather conditions on July 19, Ripley pointed to a preliminary report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board that said “the water appeared calm” when the lake tour began.

“As the report also found, only five minutes later, extreme weather with increased winds appeared,” said Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts. “Our employees complied with the Coast Guard’s guidance regarding operation of the boats, based on water and weather conditions when the boats entered the lake.”

On the evening the boat sank, the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m. — 23 minutes before the vessel entered the water — 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 of about four feet.

As federal investigators continue their probe into the sinking, weather continues to be a focus. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley homed in on that last week when he introduced legislation aimed at making duck boats safer.

Under the Missouri senator’s proposal, duck boat operators would be required to check the National Weather Service forecast before going on water. They also would have to proceed to a safe harbor if the weather service issues a watch or warning for wind speeds.

“It’s time for Congress to act, to take every step available to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Hawley said in a video he posted on Twitter Thursday, the day he announced his proposal. “(The legislation) would prevent duck boats from going out in the midst of storms like what happened on Table Rock Lake.”

Soon after the duck boat tragedy, The Star requested numerous records and documents from the Coast Guard regarding the amphibious vehicles in the Branson operation. The more than 1,500 pages of inspections, reports, correspondence and photos confirm what The Star reported in November about the removal of the water discharge pumps — called Higgins pumps — from many duck boats, including Stretch Duck 07.

The Star found that the Higgins pumps, which could push out as much as 250 gallons of water per minute from the bottom of the boat, had been replaced in many of the boats in recent years. The World War II-era pumps, the company contended, were getting too hard to maintain and only discharged at top capacity when the boats were running at full speed.

In their place, Ride the Ducks installed electric bilge pumps capable of extracting 20 gallons of water or less per minute — a fraction of the pumping capacity of a Higgins.

The Higgins was one of two bilge pumping systems on the original duck boats. One pump was for normal operations and the Higgins, which is powered by the engine, was for extreme conditions. Its “dewatering” capacity, 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.”

The records obtained by The Star show that Ride the Ducks commissioned a flooding analysis in 2005 to measure the impact that removing the Higgins pump would have. The report found that adding a third bilge pump could provide enough pumping capacity to keep the boat afloat if it started flooding.

In June 2005, the Coast Guard approved a request from Ride the Ducks Branson to remove the Higgins pumps from its boats.

The approval required that several safety measures be put in place if the Higgins was removed. Among them: adding a bilge pump with a capacity of 20 gallons per minute to the engine room and ensuring that the primary source of flooding was isolated to a watertight compartment.

The Coast Guard approval also said that submersible electric bilge pumps must meet federal regulations that require shut-off valves to be installed where water could get into the boat.

But in January 2015, before the current owners purchased the company, the Coast Guard said Ride the Ducks Branson had not complied with the 2005 regulation regarding the shut-off valves.

The company appealed that notice the next day, saying that the duck boats instead had “shut-off closures” that work automatically, not manually like the valves.

Ride the Ducks Branson argued that a manually operated shut-off valve would require the boat’s operator to leave the helm and have passengers move in order to gain access to close the valves.

Another reason the company gave for not switching to shut-off valves was that “in the unlikely event of uncontrollable flooding, the master would take advantage of the close proximity to shore and make every effort to reach it...”

“The vessels operate on a restricted route, no more than 30 minutes and less than 1000 feet from shore,” Ride the Ducks said in a letter to support their argument.

It’s not known how far Stretch Duck 07 was from shore on July 19. But after struggling in the churning lake as it headed toward the dock, the boat sank in about 15 feet of water and came to rest on the lake floor at a depth of 70 feet.

In February 2015, the Coast Guard approved Ride the Ducks’ appeal of the shut-off valve requirement.

“After carefully considering the current route, your unique operation, safety record and the concerns outlined in your request, your appeal for special consideration is approved ...,” the Coast Guard said.

It said Ride the Ducks would be allowed to substitute the required shut-off valve with a hinged cover, or “flapper valve.” If Ride the Ducks did that, however, the Coast Guard said the company must meet several criteria.

Among them: “Maximum wave height must not exceed 2 feet (24 inches) while underway.”

Allen, the marine expert, said Ride the Ducks’ notion that safety would not be compromised because the boats operated close to shore was weak.

“You can’t use that 1,000 feet off shore argument,” he said. “That’s not going to fly. A thousand feet, that’s a long way out. You can get five-foot waves on the beach.”

The documents released by the Coast Guard also reveal previous safety issues involving Stretch Duck 07.

An annual inspection on Jan. 7, 2015, indicated that the boat was operating with three submerged bilge pumps, each rated as having a capacity of 20 gallons per minute.

“During operational testing of submerged bilge pumps (3 each), it was noticed that the pumps were discharging extremely slow,” the report said. Ride the Ducks agreed that the pumps were likely due for replacement, and the company replaced them that day with pumps that were rated at about 33 gallons per minute. But during testing, the pumps sent water back into the area they were supposed to be clearing, the report said. The inspector found that the discharge piping was not big enough to achieve the maximum rating.

On April 7, 2015, inspectors found that “all repairs were made to the satisfaction of the attending marine inspectors and a waterborne test was completed satisfactorily in Table Rock Lake.”

The legislation introduced last week calls for vessels to have reserve buoyancy that would help prevent a boat from sinking as it floods.

“Senator Hawley’s bill addresses the issues uncovered in the Coast Guard documents,” said Kelli Ford, a Hawley spokeswoman.

She pointed to the stipulation that until boats comply with the new buoyancy requirement, they would need additional electric bilge pumps and bilge alarms and have to remove canopies before the vessel went into the water. Passengers would be required to wear personal flotation devices if a canopy is removed.

“Those who do not comply cannot take their boats on the water until doing so,” Ford said.

Hawley’s bill also includes a new regulation that operators must inform passengers that seat belts may not be worn when the vehicle is on the water and that a crew member must check to make sure that each passenger has unbuckled.

Ripley said it had not had a chance to fully review the proposed legislation, “but we have always been and remain committed to supporting safe industry practices.”

Last month, the Ride the Ducks owner announced that the Branson attraction would not open this season.

Federal authorities continue to investigate the fatal boat sinking on Table Rock Lake.

A similar investigation after another tragedy two decades ago showed how crucial a Higgins pump could be. After a fatal duck boat disaster in Arkansas, the federal transportation safety board found that if the super pump had been working, lives would have been saved.

Court documents indicate that two Ride the Ducks captains — both on Table Rock Lake on July 19 in separate boats — are targets of the federal probe. They are under investigation for allegedly operating their vessels in a manner that endangered lives.

Kenneth Scott McKee, who captained the boat that sank, was indicted in November on federal charges. He is accused of misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty in connection with the tragedy.

Multiple civil lawsuits have been filed by victims and their families. At least two have been settled.

Allen said he feels bad for the captain but that captains bear ultimate responsibility for their passengers.

“Some captains don’t realize the authority and the responsibility they hold,” he said. “I don’t care who told the captain to do what. It’s up to them to make the right decision.

“You could still blame the company for trying to mislead the captain. But he could have just said, ‘I’m not going to do it.’ He may have lost his job, but that’s better than losing lives.”

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Judy L. Thomas joined The Star in 1995 and is a member of the investigative team, focusing on watchdog journalism. Over three decades, the Kansas native has covered domestic terrorism, extremist groups and clergy sex abuse. Her stories on Kansas secrecy and religion have been nationally recognized.
Laura Bauer came to The Star in 2005 after spending much of her life in southwest Missouri. She’s a member of the investigative team focusing on watchdog journalism. In her 25-year career, Laura’s stories on child welfare, human trafficking, crime and Kansas secrecy have been nationally recognized.