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United States

Missouri duck boat driver told passengers not to put on life jackets, survivor says

Nine of the 17 dead when boat sank after being overcome by strong winds and waves were relatives of woman, who made claim from hospital bed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 10:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 July, 2018, 8:16pm

An Indiana woman who lost nine members of her family, including her children and husband, when a “duck boat” capsized and sank in Missouri said on television that the captain of the vessel told passengers not to put on life jackets.

Tia Coleman told an Indianapolis television station that she and her nephew were the only survivors from 11 members of their family who were on the amphibious vehicle when it capsized and sank in a storm near Branson, Missouri on Thursday, killing 17 of its 31 passengers.

“I lost all my children, I lost my husband, I lost my mother in law, I lost my father in law, I lost my uncle, I lost my sister in law – she was my sister – and I lost my nephew, I’m OK, but this is really hard,” Coleman told Fox 59 from her hospital bed in Branson.

Coleman said her husband would “want the world to know” that when they were in the water, the captain of the vehicle told them not to put their life jackets on, an action she believed had cost lives.

“The captain told us: ‘Don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets, you won’t need them,’ so nobody grabbed them because we listened to the captain and he told us to stay seated,” Coleman said. “However in doing that, when it was time to grab them it was too late. I believe that a lot of people could have been spared.”

The captain of the vehicle was among 14 survivors, seven of whom were injured, one of them severely.

Coleman said the boat crew were told to first do the water section of the 70-minute land/water tour, which involves going in Table Rock Lake near Branson, so as to avoid an expected storm while they were sailing.

“There was a warning, the warning people said ‘take them out to the water first before the storm hits,’” Coleman said, adding that she did not know whether they went through the land or the water section of the tour first. “The water didn’t look ominous at the very first, it looked like normal water, and then it started looking really choppy.”

A bystander took a more than four minute video of the duck boat slowly being swamped by waves as it tried to make it to shore, before it finally capsized and sank.

A Philadelphia lawyer who has advocated for victims of other duck boat disasters said the canopy roof on duck boats turned them into a “death trap” even for anyone wearing a life jacket.

“You drown if you do, you drown if you don’t,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, who is calling for federal and state transport officials to immediately halt all duck boat operations.

A decades old report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said duck boats’ canopy roof contributed to the 13 deaths in the 1999 incident, on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas.

“Canopies present major safety risks that need to be addressed … both adults and children wearing life jackets are at risk of being drowned if entrapped by the overhead canopy,” the NTSB said of the sinking.

Gerald Dworkin, a consultant for Lifesaving Resources, an aquatics safety training firm in Maine, said, “Even if they were wearing a life jacket when the boat went down, unless they could evacuate through the side windows they would’ve been trapped by that canopy.”

On the state-run Missouri Division of Tourism’s website, VisitMO, Ride the Ducks said, “Our Ducks use the latest in marine design and safety. They are regularly inspected, tested & certified by the United States Coast Guard to ensure a safe and comfortable experience for our guests.”

The state agency pulled the page from its website on Friday. Kate Renfrow, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email, “Our web team made a decision to pause the listing this morning to give the associates of Ride the Ducks the ability to focus on those impacted by this tragedy … Once we confirm the business is operating again, we intend to restore.”