Ticket mix-up put Indiana family on ill-fated tourist boat in Branson, Missouri
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BRANSON, Mo. — More than half of the 17 people killed when a tourist boat sank on a Branson lake were members of the same Indiana family, and they likely wouldn’t have been on the ill-fated trip but for a ticket mix-up.
Tracy Beck, of Kansas City, Missouri, said she recalled the family members waiting in line. After they stopped for a picture, she said, a ticket taker realized they should have boarded at a different location and reassigned them.
A survivor from the family said the captain told passengers not to bother grabbing life jackets.
Tia Coleman told Indianapolis television station WXIN that she and a nephew were the only survivors among 11 relatives aboard the boat. She said she lost all her children, but she did not say how many.
Coleman said the captain told passengers that they would not need life jackets. By the time of the accident, “it was too late.”
An email message seeking comment from Ripley Entertainment about Coleman’s comment was not immediately returned.
The grief-stricken community, known for its country shows and entertainment, hosted two vigils Friday night. About 300 people gathered in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks of Branson and others mourned at a church, singing “Amazing Grace” at both locations.
At the rally at the duck boat business, the Rev. Zachary Klein said he had no words of comfort to offer the families of victims “because there simply are no words to comfort them.”
Earlier, Mayor Karen Best said Branson is typically a city “full of smiles … But today we are grieving and crying.”
Divers found the final four bodies Friday in Table Rock Lake near Branson after the deadliest accident of its kind in nearly two decades. State and federal investigators were trying to determine what went sent the vessel known as a duck boat to its demise. An initial assessment blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength, but it wasn’t clear why the amphibious vehicle even ventured out into the water.
Officials haven’t released names of the victims.
The risk of heavy weather was apparent hours before the boat left shore.
The weather service station in Springfield, about 40 miles north of Branson, issued a severe thunderstorm watch for its immediate area Thursday, saying conditions were ripe for winds of 70 mph. It followed up at 6:32 p.m. with a severe thunderstorm warning for three counties that included Branson and the lake. The warning mentioned both locations. The boat went down about 40 minutes later, shortly after 7 p.m.
“When we issue a warning, it means take action,” meteorologist Kelsey Angle said.
A full investigation was underway, with help from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board. Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader urged anyone with video or photos of the accident to contact authorities.
The agencies were briefing Missouri’s two senators on the accident. Democrat Claire McCaskill said she would look into possible “legislative solutions,” while Republican Roy Blunt called it a “tragedy that never should have happened.”
At the rally at the duck boat business, the Rev. Zachary Klein said he had no words of comfort to offer the families of victims “because there simply are no words to comfort them.”Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said the company was assisting authorities. She said this was the company’s only accident in more than 40 years of operation.
The boat was carrying 29 passengers and two crew members on a pleasure cruise, and everyone aboard had been accounted for by midday Friday. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt when the vessel went down. At least two were hospitalized in critical condition. The captain survived, authorities said.
Among the injured was 14-year-old Loren Smith of Osceola, Arkansas. Her father, 53-year-old retired math teacher Steve Smith, and her 15-year-old brother, Lance, died in the accident. Loren suffered a concussion but survived.
“It’s a hard thing,” Steve Smith’s father, Carroll Smith, said of losing his only child and his only grandson. “It’s a very difficult day.”
Brayden Malaske, of Harrah, Oklahoma, was on vacation with family when he boarded a replica 19th-century paddle wheeler known as the Branson Belle on the same lake just before the storm hit.
At the time, he said, the lake seemed calm, and no one was worried about the weather.
“But it suddenly got very dark,” he recalled.
In a short video taken by Malaske from a dock, the duck boat can be seen wallowing through the choppy, wind-whipped lake, with water only inches from its windows. Dark, rolling waves crash over its front end. The footage ends before the boat capsizes.
Later, people on Malaske’s boat saw a duck boat passenger “hanging on for dear life” to the paddle wheel of the Belle, he said.
The mayor identified the crew member driving the boat as Bob Williams, known informally as “Captain Bob.”
“He was at a great ambassador for Branson,” Best said. “He was at every event. He knew everyone. He was always promoting Branson.”
Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.
Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus. Thirteen people died in 1999 when a boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“Duck boats are death traps,” said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. “They’re not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat.”
Safety advocates have sought improvements and complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements.
The boats were originally designed for the military, specifically to transport troops and supplies in World War II. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.
Passengers on a nearby boat described the chaos on the lake as the winds picked up and the water turned rough.
“Debris was flying everywhere,” Allison Lester said in an interview Friday with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Lester’s boyfriend, Trent Behr, said they saw a woman in the water and helped to pull her into the boat. He said he was about to start CPR when an EMT arrived and took over.
Divers quickly located the vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lakebed, and authorities planned to recover it later Friday.
The boat sank in 40 feet of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 80 feet of water. Investigators had no information about whether passengers were wearing life jackets or whether they were stowed onboard, the sheriff said.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board planned to help with the investigation.
Branson, about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City, is a country-themed tourist mecca built on a reputation for patriotic and religious-themed shows in numerous theaters.
Table Rock Lake, east of Branson, was created in the late 1950s when the Corps of Army Engineers built a dam across the White River to provide hydroelectric power to the Ozarks.