Family who lost 9 in Missouri duck boat capsize had tickets to another tour but swapped them out

A Ride the Ducks boat capsized in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, on Thursday.

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A Ride the Ducks boat capsized in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, on Thursday.
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Facebook/KOLR

  • Ride the Ducks capsize survivor Tia Coleman said she and 10 family members had bought tickets for another duck boat tour but had their tickets swapped for Thursday’s ride.
  • Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew were the only members of their family to survive the capsize.
  • She said that the captain of the boat told the 29 passengers on the duck boat that they wouldn’t need life jackets, and by the time of the accident, “it was too late.”

More than half of the 17 people killed when a tourist boat sank on a Branson, Missouri, 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.

One of two survivors of the family, Tia Coleman, told KOLR that she and 10 members of her family had bought tickets for a duck boat tour, but went to the wrong location when it was time to board.

Coleman was able to switch the tickets for the 6:30 p.m. ride with Ride The Ducks, and an hour later, she and her 13-year-old nephew were the only family members to survive the capsize in Table Rock Lake.

Ahead of Thursday’s ride, Colman said that she was told that despite most duck boat tours starting on land, her family’s would start in the water due to an incoming storm.

She told KOLR: “Big huge waves, choppy – everybody started getting like hey, this is getting a little bit too much, and then it got really choppy and big swells of water started coming in to the boat.

“Then a really huge wave swept over and when that wave swept over, the last thing I heard my sister-in-law say was ‘grab the baby’.”

The waves soon took over the boat, and the watercraft started sinking.

“My head pushed up to the top of the water and I lost control, I didn’t have anybody with me,” Coleman said, “I couldn’t see anybody. And I know it wasn’t but I felt like I struggled for at least an hour, but it was probably like 10 minutes. And I just remembered I kept sinking, I kept sinking.”

Coleman told WXIN that the captain of the boat told the 29 passengers on the duck boat that they wouldn’t need life jackets. By the time of the accident, “it was too late.”

Coleman lost her husband, three children, aged 9, 7, and 1, her mother-in-law, father-in-law, her uncle, her sister-in-law, and her sister-in-law’s soon-to-be three-year-old in the capsize. Her 13-year-old nephew was the only other survivor in the family.

The grief-stricken community in Branson, Missouri, 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.”

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.

Mayor Karen Best said Branson is typically a city “full of smiles … But today we are grieving and crying.”

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 the nine Indiana relatives, many of them children.

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.”

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.

An email message seeking comment from Ripley Entertainment about Coleman’s comments was not immediately returned to Associated Press.

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.