Should duck boats return to Branson? A year after 17 died, a divided community grieves

The former mayor of Branson feels absolute about “the ducks” to a degree others do not.

“I will never forget the shrills, the screams, crying,” said Karen Best.

On July 19 — a year ago this week — it became her horrible duty to inform the families of 17 tourists visiting this Ozarks resort town that their loved ones had drowned aboard a duck boat in the storm-swept waters of Table Rock Lake.

To Best’s thinking, that should have forever ended the duck boats’ nearly 50-year history in Branson, even if they could be made safer. Today, the crafts are nowhere in sight, conspicuous by their absence. The Branson Ride the Ducks headquarters, along the town’s prime entertainment drag, this year was turned into Top Ops, a military-themed challenge course and laser tag attraction.

“I don’t know that they need to come back to this community,” Best said.

But hers is hardly a sentiment shared by all in a town where — amid water slides and fudge shops, lakeside inns and homespun theater like Dolly Parton’s Stampede — residents acknowledge that beneath an exterior of cheer, many are still mourning and struggling with how to move on.

It’s not out of the question that duck boats might be welcomed back to Branson, provided they come with alterations and upgraded safety measures, said Edd Akers, 76, who was born in the back of a Branson general store and in April was elected the city’s new mayor.

“They’re still operating in other parts of the country,” he said. “They are still successful in different areas. You know, if they are meant to come back and are supposed to come back, I think it could. I think it could come back and be accepted.”

Any sort of discussion about the boats and the tragedy they bring to mind is tangled in mixed emotions, he says. “I just want you to know that people are still hurting here.”

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The Ride the Ducks headquarters in Branson has been turned into a military-themed challenge course and laser-tag attraction called Top Ops. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Tragedy on Table Rock Lake

That pain hit last July 19, when what was supposed to have been a family-friendly tour on a duck boat — an amphibious military vehicle that’s so-called because, like a duck, it can maneuver on both land and water — turned to disaster.

At close to 7 p.m. the vehicle with 31 people aboard, including 29 passengers, a driver for land and captain for water, entered the lake. Employees assumed they could beat out an expected thunderstorm. Minutes later, the storm rose, pummeling the boat with rain, spray and winds beyond 60 mph. Heavy, violent waves crashed over the low-lying craft as it struggled, but failed, to putter to shore.

The vessel swamped. As it sank, everyone tried to clamber from beneath an overhead canopy and through plastic curtain windows, closed against the rain. No one wore life jackets.

“You won’t need them,” the captain reportedly said.

One family of nine, visitors from New Mexico and Texas, made it safely to shore.

But a family of 11 from Indianapolis was all but wiped out. Only two lived. A mother, Tia Coleman, would lose her husband and all three of her children, ages 9, 7 and 1. Her husband’s parents and uncle perished. And her surviving 13-year-old nephew, Donovan, lost his mother and 2-year-old brother.

A Higginsville couple, William and Janice Bright, celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary, drowned together, as did a dating couple from St. Louis, Bill Asher and Rose Hamann. An Arkansas teen, Loren Smith, lost her dad, Steve Smith, and 15-year-old brother, Lance. Twelve-year-old Alicia Dennison from Illinois says she survived because her drowning grandmother pushed her upward as the boat sank.

Robert “Bob” Williams, Ride the Ducks’ 73-year-old driver on land, lost his life, while the boat captain survived.

Others, not aboard, were traumatized. Branson is a tourist city that has sustained itself by creating happy family memories. But residents note that a number of police, fire and other first responders have been far from happy, having wrestled emotionally and psychologically in the months following the tragedy, as have crew members and witnesses aboard the Showboat Branson Belle.

“I have good friends who were on the showboat, either working there or saw the tragedy take place,” Akers, the mayor, said. “Start talking to them and their eyes water because they saw things that they don’t like to remember.”

The showboat, with its fire-engine-red paddle wheel, was docked close by. Many of those on deck watched as Stretch Duck 07 submerged beneath the swells, sending adults and children thrashing into the water. Some few deck hands and the Belle’s passengers reportedly dove in. Others helped, hurling life vests, grasping at the arms and hands of survivors who managed to swim to the showboat, pulling them up through the blades of the paddle wheel.

Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader recalled “the utter chaos,” arriving at the scene within minutes, being told that 31 people were on the craft, but seeing few survivors.

“In almost 30 years of law enforcement,” he said, “that was probably one of the most traumatic events I have been involved in. … I had a deputy on there (the Belle) who jumped in and helped save people and dragged the deceased out of the water. He’ll forever be affected by that. The emotional impact it made on everyone in this area, that tragedy will never be forgotten.”

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Plenty of watercraft, including the Showboat Branson Belle, cruise Table Rock Lake this summer, but duck boats are currently not part of the picture. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

‘It’s still hard’

Last week, in the parking lot adjacent to where Ride the Ducks passengers once boarded the vehicles before taking to Branson’s streets and the lake, resident Noni Wright, 61, stood with her daughter, Michaela, 23, and choked with emotion to think about the families, especially the Colemans.

On the day before so many died, she had encountered the Colemans at White Water, the Branson water park where she works.

“I had assisted them and got to meet them and they were a wonderful family,” Wright said, her voice catching. Like others, she had friends working on the Branson Belle who were traumatized.

“It’s still hard to take in,” said Wright, who called the tragedy “a tender spot in everyone’s heart.”

The Sunday after the duck boat tragedy on Table Rock Lake, then-Branson Mayor Karen Best spoke at a community-wide memorial service at College of the Ozarks. Nathan Papes The Associated Press

Steve Martin, a chaplain for the Nixa Fire Department north of Branson, was called in that night. Soon after the duck boat went down, Martin sat with Shayne Collins, 42, and his family — nine of them, including Collins’ grade school nieces and nephews and 15-year-old daughter from Texas and New Mexico.

All survived.

Martin has worked many tragedies, including the 2011 Joplin tornado that killed 161 people. Families struck by sudden death often turn speechless, he said. “You’re in a mode where you’re not really connecting emotionally. You’re just processing,” Martin said.

But knowing his family all survived, Collins shared much.

“The dad is talking about his family in the water, not knowing where they all are,” Martin recalled. “Some of them made it out to different parts of the Branson Belle. Through the paddle area. Others on the side. Just the fear of trying to get them out, the fear weighed upon the father. Mom is in the same boat, trying to save others. Both of them were trying to rescue.”

Martin, even then, had little doubt that, although they all survived, coming to terms with that fact would take time. “I don’t think anyone fully understood what this meant, how close they were to not surviving,” he said.

Living through a tornado, where damage can be spread across miles, can feel like a distant trauma. But this was intimate.

“What about sharing the same few feet with somebody?” he asked. “When the tragedy hits, you’re within touching distance of people who don’t survive. What that does is you think about: All nine members of my family lived, but only two in another family lived.”

He worried about the guilt, although he hopes much of that might have been assuaged when at a Branson memorial for the victims, a Coleman relative, despite their loss, told the Collinses they were grateful that entire family survived.

A year on, not one of the 14 who survived the duck boat, or their immediate family, chose to talk to The Star about the disaster or the effect it has had on their lives. Most declined, saying that as the anniversary approached, remembering is simply too painful.

“I very much would like to be left alone,” texted Rebekah Whittington, whose parents, the Brights of Higginsville, perished.

In November, Whittington and her two sisters were the first to settle a negligence lawsuit for an undisclosed amount against Ripley Entertainment, which owns Branson Ride the Ducks. Ripley filings this month show that 19 of 33 others who have filed claims against the company have already settled. Most Coleman relatives are among them, as are other survivors, their families, people on the Branson Belle. Meantime, three duck boat employees, including the captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, 52, still face criminal prosecution.

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Tia Coleman buried her husband, Glenn, and three children, Arya, Evan and Reece, in Floral Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. Five other Coleman relatives who also died in the 2018 duck boat tragedy are buried in another cemetery. Eric Adler eadler@kcstar.com

At his door in Indianapolis, one Coleman relative said that his family continues to grieve.

“They’re not going to want to rehash that, not at this time,” he said.

In the days after the deaths, a GoFundMe page to help the Coleman family was set up by Tia Coleman’s sister and swiftly raised more than $760,000. The page also raised concerns when, as funds poured in, it was almost immediately changed to support only Tia Coleman. Two other GoFundMe pages were then set up for other family, raising more than $40,000 and $80,000 each. Relatives in posts insisted the money would help all the family.

Where Tia Coleman’s nephew Donovan is now living, who is raising him and what funds he has received remain unclear. A publicist working for the family said she was not at liberty to answer those questions.

The nine victims of the Coleman family lie in two Indianapolis cemeteries. In one, Floral Park Cemetery, Tia’s 40-year-old husband, Glenn, and their three children, Reece, 9, Evan, 7, and Arya, 1, lie side by side at the southern end of Lilac Lane, a road arched by rows of young trees, past the Garden of Remembrance and the Garden of the Praying Hands.

Their headstone, though purchased, has not been chosen. Four small temporary markers, white stone with names and a crucifix etched in black, are bordered by a small American flag and vases holding artificial flowers: yellow sunflowers, white lilies, roses and daisies in purple, blue, orange and pink.

The five other victims in the family are buried in Washington Park North Cemetery: Glenn’s parents, Horace “Butch” Coleman, 70, and Belinda Coleman, 69; their 46-year-old daughter, Angela Coleman; her 2-year-old son, Maxwell Ly; and Butch Coleman’s brother, Irvin Coleman, 76. Flowers and flags line their plot. Butch had retired from UPS; his old badge was left there in remembrance. The headstone has yet to be placed.

Branson remembers

Akers said that once all the lawsuits are settled, he plans to present a proposal to the city to create a memorial to the duck boat victims.

“I want a peaceful, reverent place,” the mayor said, “close to the lake where families of those lost family members, or those who were affected by the tragedy, could come and pay their respects. That would, to me, be the ideal way to honor those folks.”

Akers said the idea was inspired in part from the years his father was a government appraiser, back before Table Rock Dam was erected in the late 1950s. “He would go out and talk to the hill people,” Akers said, “the folks, and talk to them about buying their land that was going to be covered by water.

“One thing they wanted was to have their cemeteries moved up, so they could visit their families. Ozark hill culture is to remember our loved ones and to pay homage to them. There are graveyards around Table Rock Lake where family graveyards were taken up. They’re still there today.”

Branson Mayor Edd Akers would like his town to put up a memorial for the victims of the 2018 duck boat tragedy. “I want a peaceful, reverent place,” he said. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Another inspiration was a trip he and his wife once took to Australia where, 300 miles into the outback from the coastal city of Adelaide, they came upon a memorial in the town of Broken Hill to the musicians who played when the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912.

“It was a real peaceful, reverent area,” Akers said, “by a little graveyard area, by a little stream and there was a memorial that had a fence around it.”

Such a memorial, he thinks, would be welcome in town. He’s not so sure about the duck boats.

Akers is not aware of any plan by Ripley Entertainment, or any other company, to bring the attraction back to Branson. In June, after 22 years in business, a different duck boat company in Pittsburgh — Just Ducky Tours — announced it was canceling its 2019 season because its insurance company would no longer cover the tours.

Owners specifically blamed the duck boat deaths in Branson.

“We were just a victim of the unscrupulous actions of the operator in Branson, Missouri,” Michael Cohen, who started the business in 1997 with friend Chris D’Addario, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “If that accident had never happened, we would be operating today. … The insurance companies got spooked. … It’s crushing and it hurts.”

In an email to The Star, Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts offered a one-line statement that leaves the question of the ducks open-ended: “Ride the Ducks is not operating this season and no decision has been made about future operations.”

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Members of a U.S. Coast Guard crew used a special barge and a crane to retrieve the duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake on July 19, 2018, during a strong storm. Seventeen people died in the tragedy. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Best, the former mayor, said that opinions and emotions are decidedly divided on even the possibility of a return.

In one show of support, a Facebook group, Save Ride the Ducks Branson, formed within days of the disaster. More than 200 people joined, many with fond memories of the duck boats, who used the site to express both sadness at the tragedy but also support for the attraction. As time passed, however, postings on the site dwindled.

“There are a lot of people,” Best said, “who feel strongly that they should come back, and there are a lot of people who feel strongly they should not come back.”

Those who want the boats frequently include children, like 12-year-old Gerald Blaine, who was visiting Branson last week with his family from Gastonia, North Carolina. “I’ve been on a duck boat and I really liked it,” he said.

Others, such as Mike Sabonghy, 78, of Houston, blame the freak storm for the disaster and argue that the boats could come back if they included better safety measures or modifications.

“They should come back,” Sabonghy argued. “It was not technical. It was a weather thing.”

“I know they are greatly missed,” said Wright, who works at a Branson water park. If the World War II-era crafts were changed, in the very least, to include break-away canopies in a disaster, “I don’t see why they couldn’t come back.”

More than just a ride, the duck boat tours, she said, also had military historical value. The role of the swift thunderstorm that day, she said, was undeniable. Severe weather and winds had been predicted since the morning.

“I feel like it was just a weird thing,” Wright said. “Yes, we had storm warnings out. But I also was working that day. I remember how fast it came on. … I mean when you have winds that come up so fast that they’re taking your loungers and just tossing them like a piece of trash, you know it was something totally unexpected. I don’t think it was expected to be that severe. I know being out on the lake is a totally different atmosphere than being in town, so I can’t imagine how quick it came up across that lake where there really wasn’t time to get to safety.”

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The car of duck boat victims Bill Asher and Rose Hamann remained in the parking lot of the Ride the Ducks offices the day after the tragedy and became a memorial to them. The spot is now a laser tag and maze attraction. John Sleezer The Kansas City Star

But Gary Holland, 49, of Dallas, who was with his wife, Eileen, visiting Branson for the first time last week, blamed not the weather, but the operators.

“The water was rough as hell. They should never have been out there in it,” he said. “I mean, if it’s your own personal craft, that’s great. But when I’m liable for 50 other people on a boat, I don’t need to be out in that.”

“We go to Hot Springs, and we see them out there,” Eileen Holland said of the duck boat tours in the national park. “I wouldn’t go on them. They’re not designed for that. The way they’re enclosed just makes them look very unsafe.”

“I mean, if you’re going to do that, they shouldn’t be windowed up, so you can have an escape route,” Gary said of the craft’s plastic curtain windows and canopies. “But do I think they need to be pulled off the lakes? No.

“I think people just need to have better judgment. … A plane crashes. Do we stop flying? No. It’s just one incident that happened. What could we do to make it better? That should be the mindset.”

But Lisa Reed, 34, who was visiting Branson from Ponca City, Oklahoma, with her 10-year-old daughter, Murphi, and four other families, said that if the duck boats were ever brought back, “it would have to be one hell of a comeback, man.”

“It’s pretty scary,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think of something like that being able to happen. … I know it was weather related. You can’t control the weather. But, still, it kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

The families talked about the duck boats and all agreed: Improved safety precautions or not, “All five of us said that we probably wouldn’t do it again,” Reed said.

Anitra Tricou, 41, up from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with her husband, Chris, and family, firmly agreed. A U.S. Army veteran, Tricou said the War War II-era car/boats were, at the very least, outdated.

“For me, I would not let my kids get on one,” she said. “The thrill is not worth dying for. … Get a real boat.”

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The tree-lined ramp that led the duck boats from land onto Table Rock Lake is now off limits and blocked by a rusting trailer. Nearly a year has passed since 17 people perished when their boat was caught in a storm and sank not far from shore. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

Table Rock Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Sheila Thomas said that since the duck boats left, the region has recorded no economic downturn, although their absence is noticed.

“For people who have lived here for a long time, or who have been coming here for a long time,” she said, “it’s just a sad void there.”

Of the tragedy: “Those of us who live here and work here and use and love Table Rock Lake will never forget it,” she said. “It affects you personally.”

No more personally than it does for the Dennisons, the family from Sherrard, Illinois, who, for years spent summers in Branson. Alicia Dennison was 12 when the the duck boat sank, plunging her and her grandmother, 64-year-old Leslie Dennison, into the water.

Alicia lived. Her grandmother died.

“It’s been a rough year (for) my daughter,” Alicia’s father, Todd Dennison, texted. “It’s been hard on her.”

And on him, too. His daughter nearly died. He lost and buried his mother.

The family, nonetheless, made plans to return to Branson this month, none of which Todd Dennison really wants to talk about.

“I’m sorry,” he wrote. “I’m just not up to it.”

Branson’s mayor understands.

“This area, in my mind, is still in recovery,” Akers said. “It will just take a while to heal.”

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Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.