The duck boat was coasting through the waters of Table Rock Lake on Thursday night when the weather began to pick up. It had been a nice summer day in southern Missouri, recalled one person who was on a nearby boat, before the storm suddenly moved in.
A damaging thunderstorm quickly roared across the lake near Branson, Missouri, that regularly draws crowds to tour boats and languid cruises. It delivered the punishing rain and pummeling winds forecasters had warned could be coming. The waves began to churn, rocking a duck boat that had set out with 31 people — 29 passengers and two crew members.
The storm was too much for the small boat, which eventually capsized and sank, plunging to the bottom of the lake and killing 17 people, some of them children.
“It’s been a long night, been a very trying night,” Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader told reporters.
Authorities rushed to the area to try and rescue the people thrust into the water, bringing several to area hospitals. They had initially said four people were still missing Friday morning, but they warned that the scale of the tragedy could grow, as Rader said officials were in “recovery mode for the bodies we’re still missing” rather than continuing search and rescue efforts. A short time later, he confirmed that authorities had found the final four bodies.
Federal investigators also headed to the scene to join state and local officials, with the National Transportation Safety Board dispatching a “Go Team” to the lake to help probe the latest disaster involving the duck boats popular with tourists across the country.
The boat that sank wound up about 80 feet down in the water, Rader said. It had landed in about 40 feet of water, he said, before rolling down to a deeper point and ending up resting on its wheels. Authorities expect to recover the boat later Friday.
The thunderstorm involved was part of a fast-moving complex that originated in Kansas and unleashed powerful winds all along its path. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued by the National Weather Service at 6:32 p.m., more than half an hour before police were called about the boat capsizing. A severe thunderstorm watch, signaling conditions were favorable for severe thunderstorm development, had been in effect for more than seven hours.
Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, and professor at the University of Georgia, tweeted that the “tragedy was completely preventable.”
“This is not 1901,” he wrote. “We have satellites, advanced radars, good weather models, all short-term weather information showed that storms approaching well before the boat was on the water.”
Questions immediately arose about why the boat was out there despite the forecasts. Rader told reporters he believed the boat – which he said was one of two duck boats still operating during the storm – sank due to the weather. When asked Friday if he believes operator or design error played a role in the tragedy, Rader declined to answer. He said the boat’s captain survived but its driver did not.
“It’s going to take time to know the details of everything that occurred,” Republican Gov. Mike Parson said at a news briefing Friday, noting that the sprawling investigation had just gotten underway. “Until that investigation is completed, I don’t think its my place or anyone’s place to speculate all the things that could have happened or why they happened.”
Parson also ordered flags in the state to be flown at half-staff for a week.
The duck boat, which had life jackets on board, was owned by Ride the Ducks Branson, a tourism company that takes people on tours of the Ozarks through land and water using the amphibious vehicles. Ride the Ducks is a national duck tour operator with locations across the United States, and the Branson operation was purchased last year by Ripley Entertainment, according to Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley.
Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, said Friday it appeared to be “a fast-moving storm” that hit an otherwise placid lake, saying that some of the company’s other boats had been in the water earlier in the day. But he acknowledged that the boat should not have been out.
“It shouldn’t have been in the water if what happened happened,” Pattison told “CBS This Morning” in an interview Friday. “It is absolutely devastating.”
Police were first called about the duck boat sinking shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday, officials said. While dive teams headed to the scene, people already there began to help, Rader said, a group that included one of his deputies, who was off-duty and performing security on the Branson Belle, a showboat that offers tours across the lake.
That deputy helped with the rescue, while employees of the Belle jumped in to help along with some of that ship’s passengers, Rader said, describing the effort as “outstanding.”
The weather had been nice until shortly before the disaster, Allison Lester, who saw what happened from a nearby boat, said in another television interview.
“The wind really picked up bad, and debris was flying everywhere, and just the waves were really rough,” Lester told “Good Morning America” in an interview Friday. “It was just suddenly and out of nowhere.”
In video captured by onlookers from the lake, two duck boats can be seen churning up and down through choppy waves, with water spraying in every direction. One of the boats lags behind the other, nosediving into the waves. A speedboat can be seen driving up behind the duck boats.
“Oh my gosh, oh no,” a woman is heard saying in the background of the video. “Somebody needs to help them.”
“That duck, I don’t know if they’re going to make it back,” a man is also heard saying in the video.
Another video was captured by a passenger inside the other duck boat, which made it safely to shore. Footage from Paul Lemus published by local news outlets shows a number of adults and children inside the boat. Waves crash up against the windows, and the Branson Belle can be seen docked nearby, on the lake’s shore by Table Rock State Park. According to police, the call about the duck boat sinking described it as near the Belle.
Duck boat tours, which can be found in cities from Washington D.C. to Seattle, have resulted in fatal accidents in the past, both in water and on land. In what might be the deadliest incident, 13 people died in 1999 after a duck boat suddenly started taking on water while on a tour of Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
In 2015, a Ride the Ducks boat crashed into a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, and five college students were killed. Dozens of people were also injured. Ride the Ducks International agreed the following year to pay $1 million for violating federal safety regulations, according to the Seattle Times.
Two passengers on a duck boat were killed in 2010 near Philadelphia when a barge collided with the smaller vessel. The NTSB later determined that the accident – which also caused the duck boat to sink – occurred because the person guiding the larger ship was distracted and focused on his cellphone, though federal investigators also criticized the duck boat’s operator, Ride the Ducks, for actions they said contributed to the accident.
Smagala-Potts said the boat that sank Thursday night marked the first time there has ever been an accident involving the duck boats in Branson. The company has been operating in the city for 40 years and is “a staple of Branson,” Smagala-Potts said.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred this evening at Ride The Ducks Branson,” she said. “This incident has deeply affected all of us. We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved and the authorities as they continue with the search and rescue.”
The storm rolled in suddenly while Rachel Zerby was camping along the lake near where the duck boat capsized, she told The Washington Post.
“We have a clear line of sight to both across the water,” Zerby said. “I noticed most of the boats had left the water, but there were still at least two or maybe three ducks still near the Belle.”
The city of Branson opened its city hall for survivors and relatives of the sinking. Branson set up a command post inside its city hall, offering chaplains, psychologists and Red Cross services to families, Pettit, a city spokeswoman, said.
Roger Brallier, who is a duck boat captain for Ride the Ducks Branson, told The Post that all of the captains are “very close.”
“Were it not for grace of God, it could’ve been me on the boat,” he said. “All of our hearts are completely broken right now.”
President Donald Trump offered condolences via Twitter. “My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those involved in the terrible boat accident which just took place in Missouri. Such a tragedy, such a great loss. May God be with you all!”
The Washington Post’s Reece Ristau in Branson, Missouri, and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.
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