On the evening of July 19, 2018, a duck boat operated by Ride the Ducks sank on Table Rock Lake in the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri, in the United States. The amphibious vehicle sank with 31 people on board, leaving 17 dead, during high winds associated with nearby severe thunderstorms.
|Date||July 19, 2018|
|Time||Around 7:09 p.m. (CDT)|
|Location||Table Rock Lake, Missouri, U.S.|
|Cause||Under investigation; weather and rough waves factors|
The DUKW ("Duck" or "duck boat") is a wheeled amphibious vehicle used by the United States military and its allies during the later years of World War II and the Korean War. The vehicles became available in surplus after the Korean War, and a veteran in Minnesota began a business giving rides aboard the vessels to tourists on the Wisconsin River. Over the last 50 years, the practice has expanded to other areas. Several major tourist destinations in the United States feature duck boat tours, including Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Before the Table Rock Lake accident, there had been several other fatal incidents involving duck boats, notably one near Hot Springs, Arkansas, on May 1, 1999, in which 13 people died. That incident was attributed to several factors, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); inadequate maintenance was the main cause, with other contributing factors including inadequate reserve buoyancy and the continuous canopy roof over the passenger cabin preventing escape. Among others, recommendations were made for amphibious passenger vehicles to either add additional buoyancy to prevent sinking when flooded, or require passengers to wear life jackets and remove the canopy to allow escape in the event of a sinking.
The accident occurred shortly after 7 p.m. Central Daylight Time on July 19, 2018, as a line of severe thunderstorms approached the Branson area. Approximately an hour prior to the accident, the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning for areas around the lake. It is not known whether the two crew members aboard the vessel were aware of the warning or what action they attempted to take. The National Weather Service reports that winds in the area at the time were in excess of 60 miles per hour (100 km/h), and the storm over the lake was moving very quickly and causing three-foot (one-meter) waves on the lake.
The vessel was a refurbished DUKW built in 1944 and extended to hold more people, a design known as a "stretch duck". The first 911 call was received at 7:09pm as the boat was already going under the water, according to the local sheriff. Local officials reported the following morning that all passengers and crew aboard the vessel had been accounted for and confirmed a total of 17 deaths. The ages of those who died in the accident ranged from 1 to 70 years old, and nine were members of a single family visiting from Indianapolis. None of the passengers or crew were wearing a life jacket when the boat sank.
Investigation and aftermathEdit
The NTSB dispatched investigators to the accident site the following day. In response to previous incidents involving duck boats, the NTSB had issued strong warnings about the design of the vehicles and the danger posed to passengers by their overhead canopies. Tia Coleman lost nine family members in the accident; she claimed that the crew specifically told passengers not to put on life jackets because they would not need them.
Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment (who bought the Ride the Ducks Branson location in 2017), told the media that the storm "came out of nowhere", then moved through the area and led to the accident. The day following the accident, Ride the Ducks announced that the Branson operation would be "closed for business" pending an investigation and out of respect for the victims' families; the company also announced that it would pay for funeral and medical expenses for the passengers on board the boat.
The boat was raised from the bottom of the lake in an operation supervised by the US Coast Guard on July 23, 2018, after being examined and photographed by divers. Divers also recovered a recording device from the boat, about 80 feet (24 m) below the surface.
A federal indictment against the boat's captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, was announced on November 8, 2018. McKee was charged with 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship's officer, resulting in death. According to the indictment, McKee allegedly "failed to properly assess incoming severe weather both prior to and after entering the water" of the lake and he "entered the vessel onto the water while there was severe weather, including high winds and lightning approaching the area". In June 2019, Curtis P. Lanham, general manager of Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles V. Baltzell, operations supervisor who was acting as a manager on duty, were indicted by a federal grand jury for multiple felonies related to the accident. McKee was also subject to additional charges.
In September 2020, a federal magistrate judge recommended dismissing the criminal charges against the three men indicted, reasoning that "Table Rock Lake is not considered a navigable waterway under admiralty law", and the case should be handled at the state level. In December 2020, the federal judge dismissed all the charges against the three employees, based upon his recommendation and reasoning in September.
In July 2021, state charges were filed by the Stone County prosecutor against McKee, Lanham and Baltzell. Mckee, who was the captain, was charged with 17 felony counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, 5 counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child (class A felony) for the 5 children who perished, and 7 counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child (class D felony) for the 7 children who survived. Mckee is accused of "failing to exercise his duties as a licensed captain by taking his amphibious vehicle onto the lake during a thunderstorm". Lanham and Baltzell were each charged with 17 felony counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, and are accused of failing to relay the weather conditions that day, and also "failing to cease operations during a severe thunderstorm warning".
In November 2019, a safety recommendation report was issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), stating that the "Coast Guard has repeatedly ignored safety recommendations that could have made tourist duck boats safer and potentially prevented" the Table Rock duck boat accident. “These safety issues were identified almost 20 years prior to the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 and remain relevant to this accident,” the report said. The NTSB said in their report that because of the boats low freeboard and open interior, it makes the duck boats “vulnerable to rapid swamping and sinking” when they are suddenly flooded. The safety report also found that a fixed canopy and closed side curtain impeded passenger escape and likely caused more deaths.
A federal lawsuit was filed on July 29, 2018, for US$100 million on behalf of two members of an Indiana family that lost nine people in the accident. The suit accuses Ride the Ducks of ignoring warnings that had been issued about the weather prior to the accident and continuing to use boats with design flaws that made them susceptible to sinking. In March 2019, a confidential settlement was reached for relatives of the two members of the family from Indiana.
An additional federal lawsuit was filed on September 4, 2018 by Tia Coleman, who was aboard the boat during the incident. Coleman's husband and three children were among those that drowned.
In November 2018, a confidential settlement was reached with Ripley Entertainment on behalf of two daughters of a couple from Higginsville, Missouri. The couple was celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary when they died on the duck boat ride.
In January 2020, the final lawsuit against Ripley Entertainment was settled for an undisclosed amount. In total, 31 lawsuits were filed against the company, with all being settled for undisclosed amounts.
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