Hundreds at vigils mourn victims of Branson boat accident
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri town known for its country shows and entertainment mourned Friday after 17 people — including nine from one family — were killed when a tourist boat sank on churning water in a sudden storm.
The grief-stricken community hosted two separate vigils Friday night. In one, about 300 people gathered in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks of Branson and sang “Amazing Grace.” Mourners at a church sang the same words.
“Even though we may not know any of them it doesn’t matter,” said Tammy Miesner, 54, of Branson. “It’s a part of our lives to be there for each other.”
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, but the sad details emerged throughout the day. Among them: A popular duck boat driver, a father and son visiting from Arkansas, and nine relatives from Indiana, many of them children, who were on the ill-fated boat only because of a mix-up.
The risk of heavy weather was apparent hours before the boat left shore.
The National Weather Service in Springfield, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) 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.
Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard for a pleasure cruise. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt when the vessel went down. At least two children and two adults were still hospitalized Friday afternoon. 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, 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 water 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 the deck of the Belle, 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 operating the boat as Bob Williams, known informally as “Captain Bob.”
“He was a great ambassador for Branson,” Best said. “He was at every event. He knew everyone. He was always promoting Branson.”
A survivor from the family who lost nine relatives 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.
Tracy Beck, of Kansas City, Missouri, said she recalled the family members waiting in line and blamed a possible ticket mix-up for them ending up on the ill-fated boat. She said the ticket taker realized after they stopped for a photo that they should have boarded at a different location and assigned them new tickets.
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.
The sheriff said Thursday that two duck boats were on the water at the time of the storm. Both were headed back to land. One returned safely. The other did not.
Divers quickly located the sunken vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lakebed. Authorities planned to recover it at some point in the next few days.
The boat sank in 40 feet (12 meters) of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 80 feet (25 meters) of water.
The Ride the Ducks tour begins in downtown Branson, where the vehicles take passengers on a tour while the captain cracks jokes and points out landmarks. Eventually, the boats pull up to the lake and slowly enter the water with a small splash.
After a few minutes on the water, the vehicles return to land and to their home base, which features a store selling candy and souvenirs.
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.
Associated Press writers Hannah Grabenstein in Branson; Jim Salter in St. Louis; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri; and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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