MISSOURI — Federal transportation safety investigators criticized the U.S. Coast Guard Wednesday for ignoring suggestions over nearly two decades to improve tourist duck boats, changes they say might have prevented last year's Missouri accident that killed 17 people — including nine members from an Indiana family that was on vacation.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a “Safety Recommendation Report” on the July 2018 accident, when a Ride the Ducks of Branson boat known as Stretch Duck 7 sank during a severe storm. The boat’s captain and two company executives were indicted, and 30 lawsuits filed on behalf of victims’ families have been settled.
Former World War II amphibious vehicles known as duck boats operate around the country as tour boats. Many, like the one in Branson, begin with land tours before the vehicles goes onto water.
The NTSB says that since an Arkansas duck boat accident killed 13 people in 1999, it has repeatedly urged the Coast Guard to require the vehicles to be better able to remain afloat when flooded, and to remove impediments to escape such as canopies.
“Lives could have been saved, and the Stretch Duck 7 accident could have been prevented had previously issued safety recommendations been implemented,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in a statement.
“It is imperative that the United States Coast Guard adopt these life-saving recommendations now,” Sumwalt said.
Coast Guard Lt. Amy Midget said the Coast Guard issued guidance in 2000, after an NTSB recommendation, urging its inspectors and vessel owners to evaluate canopy design and installation and to “evaluate the design and installation of seats, deck rails, windshields, and windows as a system to ensure the overall arrangement did not restrict the ability of passengers to escape.”
In addition, the guidance “emphasized the importance of carefully evaluating proposed routes and anticipated environmental conditions and imposing appropriate safety measures and operational restrictions,” Midgett said.
A new review of amphibious vessel canopies is planned based on “the NTSB's reissuance” of recommendations, Midgett said.
Following the NTSB report, lawyers for the duck boat victims, including Tia Coleman, who lost nine family members in the tragedy, are urging the Coast Guard to adopt and enforce the new safety recommendations. Lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi urged the Coast Guard to "once and for all stop the senesless deaths."
“While we commend the NTSB for its comprehensive post-accident investigation and life-saving recommendations,” said Mr. Mongeluzzi, “we demand that the Coast Guard finally makes passenger safety its highest priority and immediately do what it should have done 17 years ago, in 2002, when the NTSB made the same duck-boat safety recommendations following the May 1,1999 Miss Majestic duck boat sinking near Hot Springs, Arkansas in which 13 passengers, including five children drowned. 17 years ago the NTSB recommended that duck boats be modified so they remain afloat while flooded or that they remove their death trap canopies. The Coast Guard and the duck boat industry ignored these vital safety recommendations and another 19 innocent victims died because of their failure to act. How many more must die before they will?”
Coleman, whose husband and three young children were among those killed, also urged the Coast Guard to act saying, “17 years ago the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that canopies be removed from Duck Boats and that their reserve buoyancy be improved so they wouldn’t sink. Neither the Duck Boat Industry, nor the Coast Guard, acted on these common sense safety recommendations. The duck boat and Coast Guard’s failure to act on the NTSB’s recommendations to remove death trap canopies and improve the buoyancy of these boats killed my family. I am publicly requesting the Commandant of the Coast Guard to meet with me to discuss these recommendations and work together to save lives.”
Attorney Andrew R. Duffy added, “The Coast Guard must now act because the duck-boat industry has, sadly, demonstrated that it has been more focused on profits than protecting its passengers. It has utterly failed to adopt the NTSB’s decades-old safety recommendations to make its boats stay afloat in flooded conditions and to remove the rigid, continuous canopies that cage and trap passengers and drag them to agonizing deaths by drowning. The industry has been warned about this hazard repeatedly and continues to subject its unknowing passengers to this deadly risk. Enough is enough.”
Jeffrey P. Goodman, another SMBB partner and member of the maritime accident team of trial lawyers, said, “Today, the grieving families call on the Coast Guard and Congress, again to do what they should have done 17 years ago and ban these sinking coffins from our waters. Too many innocent loved ones have already been laid to rest because our government has failed to protect the people from these dangerous vessels.”
The NTSB said duck boats’ low freeboard and open interior make them “vulnerable to rapid swamping and sinking” when they are suddenly flooded. In the Branson accident, a sudden storm caused massive waves that poured over the boat, sinking it within minutes.
The safety report also found that a fixed canopy and closed side curtain impeded passenger escape and likely caused more deaths. Fourteen of Stretch Duck 7’s 31 passengers survived.
“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.
In May 1999, the Miss Majestic sank in Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas. Three children were among the 13 victims.
A February 2000 letter from the NTSB urged the Coast Guard to take immediate action. The NTSB said the Coast Guard responded in 2002 with a letter stating that “sufficient requirements and guidance are in place to provide to amphibious passenger vessels a level of safety equivalent to other passenger vessels of similar size and capacity.”
The NTSB said it also recommended the changes to 30 duck boat operators years ago, but just one made the recommended improvements.
The Missouri boat entered the lake as part of a land-and-water tour despite severe weather warnings. The dead included five children.
Tia Coleman of Indianapolis survived the accident but lost her husband and three young children — four of the nine victims from one extended family.
“The duck boat and Coast Guard’s failure to act on the NTSB’s recommendations to remove death trap canopies and improve the buoyancy of these boats killed my family,” Coleman said in a statement through her attorney.
Ripley Entertainment, owner of the Branson boats, has settled 30 of 31 lawsuits filed on behalf of victims of the accident, Ripley spokeswoman Suzanne Smagala-Potts said.
Meanwhile, a federal grand jury has indicted the boat’s captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, along with Ride the Ducks Branson General Manager Curtis Lanham and the company’s operations supervisor, Charles Baltzell.
McKee faces several charges accusing him of failing to properly assess the weather and failing to tell passengers to don flotation devices as conditions worsened.
Lanham and Baltzell are charged with misconduct and neglect. Indictments alleged that Baltzell got onto the duck boat before it departed and directed McKee to conduct the water portion of the excursion before the land tour because of the approaching storm. At no point after that did Baltzell or Lanham communicate with McKee about the growing intensity of the storm, including that wind gusts of 70 mph were predicted, the indictment said.
The indictment accused Lanham of helping to create "a work atmosphere on Stretch Duck 7 and other duck boats where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety."