Tragedy unfolds in first hours of 2018 sinking of Branson duck boat
The morning of July 19, 2018, had that feel Midwesterners are familiar with: That still, sticky air hinting a stormy day ahead.
The National Weather Service would confirm it when it issued a severe thunderstorm watch for southwest Missouri at 11:24 a.m., stretching until 9 that evening. About five minutes later, a weather monitoring service would share the information with Branson Ride the Ducks, the popular attraction that took tourists on land and water.
What happened over the next eight hours will be at the heart of determining who — if anyone — is responsible for the tragedy that claimed 17 lives that night. But this much is clear: Court documents, as well as other reports and interviews, when laid side by side, capture a terrifying night on Table Rock Lake.
This account is based on a timeline built in lawsuits, indictments, a report from the National Transportation Safety Board and witness interviews at the time.
At 3 p.m., Charles Baltzell showed up for his shift as Ride the Ducks’ sole manager working that night. Baltzell, 77, was described as an operations supervisor and manager on duty. That involved making sure the duck boat tours ran on time, acting as a dispatcher to communicate over handheld radio with the drivers, who steered the vessel on land, and captains, who took the helm on water.
He was also to keep an eye on the weather.
A couple of hours into Baltzell’s shift, a nasty storm was popping up over Barton and Vernon counties, both along the Missouri-Kansas border and north of Joplin. The National Weather Service would issue a warning to that effect at 5:06 p.m.
The storm didn’t appear to go unnoticed by workers at Ride the Ducks. Shortly before 6 p.m., general manager Curtis Lanham checked on weather radar to try to figure out how far away the storm was and its timing. A duck boat tour was about to start at 6 p.m., and Lanham was going on board. Before heading out he told Baltzell to keep an eye on the radar, according to federal prosecutors.
Around the time the tour was taking off, the storm was moving over Christian and northern Stone counties, northwest of Branson. The National Weather Service said it carried winds in excess of 60 miles per hour and told people they should move to an interior room of a building.
The 6 p.m. tour wouldn’t be the last one that day. Just days before, Branson Ride the Ducks had added a 6:30 p.m. tour.
As folks readied for the last tour of the day, Baltzell checked the weather service, according to an indictment. There was lightning in Springfield.
At 6:27 p.m., Kenneth McKee, the duck boat captain for the final tour, stepped on Stretch Duck 07 with a road driver, Robert Williams. The road driver sat behind the wheel while McKee took his place on a side-facing seat to the right.
Passengers go aboard
Alicia Dennison, 12, waited to get on Stretch Duck 07 with her grandmother, Leslie Dennison of Sherrard, Illinois. They had just gotten into town in enough time to drop their luggage off at the hotel and make it to Ride the Ducks for a boat tour.
They would be among 29 passengers to get on the boat for the 6:30 p.m. tour. Also on board: a couple from St. Louis, another couple from Higginsville, an Arkansas man with his son and daughter. Tia Coleman of Indianapolis was with 10 of her relatives, including her three children and two nephews.
The Coleman family, who made annual summer trips together, liked the idea of going on the duck boats; Tia’s 9-year-old son, Reece, who was on the autism spectrum, loved the water.
Alicia Dennison recalled hearing another passenger mention a Weather Channel report, wondering what it would mean for their upcoming tour.
As McKee readied the boat, Baltzell came by and told McKee and the driver that they should change up the tour, prosecutors say in a criminal indictment against McKee, Lanham and Baltzell. (Each has pleaded not guilty; Tom Bath, an attorney for Lanham, said the government’s account is incomplete and not accurate.)
Do the water part first, Baltzell told McKee. There was a storm on the way.
Just before the driver began counting passengers, the National Weather Service issued a warning for a large area that included Table Rock Lake from 6:32 to 7:30 p.m.
At 6:33 p.m., McKee began narrating the tour, according to a National Transportation Safety Board account of the day.
Five minutes after the tour began, according to prosecutors, Baltzell was getting started on closing out the business for the day — counting cash in a first floor room in the Ride the Ducks facility, away from a room where weather screens displayed information.
At 6:46 p.m., Baltzell and Lanham spoke. They talked about how the last tour of the day was switched up so that it would go on the water first.
“Good,” Lanham said, according to an indictment. “It’s dark right now.”
By 6:50 p.m., the duck boat was near the water ramp and McKee was going over safety precautions.
“Above you are your life jackets,” Tia Coleman recalled McKee saying. He pointed out there were three sizes.
“I’m going to show you where they are,” McKee said, according to Coleman. “But you won’t need them.”
If they needed them, he added, he would let them know.
About this same time, Lanham got off the boat from the 6 p.m. tour, where the captain had mentioned seeing lightning. He spotted a dark thundercloud to the northwest.
On the water
At 6:55 p.m., McKee announced that Stretch Duck 07 was about to hit the water, which was calm at that point.
Calm enough that for the next four minutes, McKee invited a few children to sit in the captain’s seat.
Also on the lake, Jennie and Jeff Carr were on the Showboat Branson Belle to celebrate 15 years of marriage.
But the weather was nagging at them. They are close watchers of weather reports, having lived through the deadly Joplin tornado in 2011.
At 7 p.m., five minutes after the duck boat had pulled away from the entry ramp and entered calm waters, the leading edge of the storm started whipping up whitecaps on the lake. McKee ushered the kids away from his captain’s seat and started looking for ways to shorten the tour. He was heard telling passengers that “they had attempted to beat the storm.”
Carr, from the safety of the showboat, took the video of the duck boat struggling against churning waters that would go viral the next day. The lake was starting to behave the way she imagined the ocean would look.
She said a prayer as she watched the duck boat get helplessly battered in the storm with winds exceeding 70 miles per hour.
“Oh Lord, please help those people,” Carr said. “Be with them. Please let them be OK.”
Others on the Branson Belle were noticing and gathered near the Carrs.
On Stretch Duck 07, it would only take four minutes after the storm arrived for a bilge alarm to sound, signaling that the boat was taking on water.
Alicia Dennison reached for a life jacket, but it was stuck. She couldn’t get it free.
Pam Smith of Arkansas later told CBS News that she was shopping in Branson while her husband, Steve, was on the boat tour with their children, Lance, 15, and Loren, 14. The last time she spoke to her husband was before the boat sank.
“It’s not good, Pam,” she remembered him saying.
She asked him to take care of the kids.
On the Branson Belle, Carr eventually stopped recording. There wasn’t much she could see; thunderclouds darkened the lake and intensifying rain obscured the view. But she didn’t need to see to know what would happen next.
As the storm was churning, McKee wasn’t talking to the passengers.
The passengers were panicking.
The first call to emergency dispatchers arrived at 7:09 p.m. The boat had started sinking.
“You need to respond to the Branson Belle,” a dispatcher for Stone County said, “for a duck that has sunk.”
The urgency and fear can be heard as dispatchers and deputies describe the storm, debris swirling in the summer air, their voices captured on Broadcastify.com. They often sound tense and frantic as they radio for help.
It’s not clear what Lanham and Baltzell, back on land, were up to between the time Stretch Duck 07 hit the water and when it began to sink to the bottom of the lake. Court records say there was no communication between them and McKee during that time.
Passengers were trapped. An overhead canopy was pulling them down. Plastic window curtains were keeping them from escaping out the side.
“When the water filled up the boat, I could no longer see,” Tia Coleman said at a news conference two days after the disaster. “I couldn’t feel anybody, I couldn’t see. I just remember, ‘I gotta get out, I gotta get out.’”
McKee at one point managed to release the overhead canopy. For all the mistakes that led passengers into the middle of the tempest, that decision may have saved some lives.
“They were all stuck in there until that top came off,” recalled 15-year-old Gillian Keller from Texas, who was with her father and seven other members of his family. They all survived.
Alicia Dennison survived, she said, because her grandmother pushed her to the surface. Her grandma did not make it.
Coleman wasn’t sure how she got out.
“And when I got out into the water, it was ice cold,” Coleman said. “And I remember as we were going into the water, they said that the lake stays pretty warm, like in the 80s. So I know for it being so cold that I’m close to the bottom, not close to the top.
“And I just remember kicking and swimming, swimming up to the top. And as I was swimming up, I was praying. I said, ‘Lord, please let me get to my babies.’”
As Coleman and others came up for air, pontoon boats were making their way out onto the water to reach the victims.
“There’s a mass casualty going on by the Branson Belle, multiple people in the water,” a Missouri Highway Patrol dispatcher said.
At 7:39 p.m., half an hour after Stretch Duck 07 started sinking, divers began the last-ditch effort to find survivors.
Five minutes later, the grim news started to emerge.
“We’re going to need the Stone County coroner,” said a dispatcher.