After Branson disaster that left 17 dead, duck boats should be docked

Here’s the bottom line on those cute-until-they’re-not duck boats of the kind that 17 people just died in on Table Rock Lake near Branson: They should all stay on dry land until we’re sure they’re safe, and that may never happen.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about this tragedy, including why the boat was out on such choppy water and why the owners and operators of Ride the Ducks Branson had equipped it with the same kind of canopy that was cited as a factor in the all-too-similar 1999 deaths of 13 people in a duck boat on Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Others deaths involving duck boats, on both land and water, have occurred in Seattle, Boston and Philadelphia, where Ride the Ducks closed operations two years ago.

Were the boats properly inspected? Were safety rules followed? Was the driver sufficiently trained? Are there ways to make duck boats safer?

Regulators will answer these questions and others, but lawmakers will play a role, too. In Washington, Missouri’s representatives in the House and Senate should ask for hearings on the safety of these boats, which date back to World War II.

The Coast Guard, which has primary oversight responsibility, should testify. So should the National Weather Service, which issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the Table Rock Lake area about 45 minutes before the boat sank. Kelsey Angle, a meteorologist with the weather service, told The Star that “within that thunderstorm warning was the possibility of winds in excess of 60 mph. Table Rock Lake was specifically mentioned.”

Missouri lawmakers must pursue their own review. As was the case in Kansas after the Schiltterbahn disaster, there should be a rewrite of safety laws and inspection protocols. If, that is, duck boat operators and their regulators can prove that they are fit for their purpose.

“Why are these boats still being used?” asks Jim Hall, who was National Transportation Safety Board chairman at the time of the Arkansas disaster, which the NTSB investigated. “These boats were not designed for recreational use, especially with large numbers of people and weather like this. The operator and the regulators know the danger. So to see these repeat occurrences, it’s just infuriating.”

Yes, it is. A 1-year-old was among the dead.

We know already that the NTSB said duck boat canopies pose a drowning risk to passengers in the event that a vessel goes down. The NTSB, which is investigating this latest incident, concluded that in Hot Springs, “contributing to the high loss of life was a continuous canopy roof that entrapped passengers within the sinking vehicle.”

Seven of those who died in Hot Springs were still inside the boat when it was recovered, and four of them had been pinned against the inside of the canopy, unable to get out.

Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney who has brought lawsuits against duck boat operators explained in horrifying detail that if a boat like that sinks, you can drown with or without a life jacket.

“The problem with canopies,” he said, “is that if you are wearing your life preserver and there is a canopy and the boat capsizes then, the floatation device will take you up in the canopy, pinning you inside the vessel. If you don’t wear your life preserver, then you don’t have the floatation to get to the surface if the boat sinks.”

A notice on Ride the Ducks Branson’s website on Friday said, “We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride The Ducks Branson. This incident has deeply affected all of us. Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking.”

No, they can’t. Action is what’s needed now.