BRANSON, Mo. – A survivor who lost nine members of her family said the captain of the duck boat that sunk on Table Rock Lake during a Thursday night storm told passengers to stay calm, take their seats and not to grab their life jackets during the turbulence.
Tia Coleman of Indianapolis, Indiana, whose children were among the family victims, said the life jackets were stored near the seating area but were not worn during the tour of the lake that turned deadly.
“My husband would want me to say this,” she said. “He would want the world to know that on this boat we were on, the captain had told us, ‘Don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets; you won’t need them.’ So nobody grabbed them as we listened to the captain as he told us to stay seated.”
Interviewed by phone from her hospital bed by Fox59 TV Station in Indianapolis, Mrs. Coleman said more members of her family and other passengers could have survived if they had worn their life vests.
Once the boat starting titling heavily, she added, “it was too late. A lot of people could have been spared.”
Neither the tour boat operator nor the captain, who survived the sinking, responded to Mrs. Coleman’s statements immediately.
Seventeen occupants of the boat, including the driver, drowned when large waves and winds of more than 60 miles per hour caused the amphibious vessel to lean over, capsize and sink as witnesses, some who shot phone videos, looked on in horror from the nearby shore. The victims ranged in age from 1 to 76.
Fourteen people survived. Seven were hospitalized, two with serious injuries. Mrs. Coleman and a nephew were the only survivors of her 11 family members on the boat. They were scheduled to board an earlier duck boat, but a ticket mix-up moved them back to the ill-fated boat.
“My heart is very heavy,” she said.
Mandi Keller of Texas said her 15-year-old daughter, Gillian, and her ex-husband also survived. She said the daughter was visiting Branson, a popular Ozarks resort town in southern Missouri, with her father and his family.
“God spared my child,” she said. “She is coming home alive and not in a body bag.”
Keller said her former husband and her daughter described the sinking, saying they were trapped initially under the boat’s canopy. Eventually, she said, it was released by one of the boat’s operators, allowing passengers to swim toward the surface. She said her ex-husband said they had to overcome the force of the sinking boat sucking people downward.
“My daughter said she thought she was dead,” said Keller.
Officials said the boat sunk in 40 feet of water, rolled down the lake’s hilly bottom, and came to rest on its wheels at a depth of 80 feet. They expected to recover the boat from the lake this weekend.
Branson, known for its county and western music venues, hosted two separate candle-lit vigils Friday night in memory of the victims, all except for the driver were out-of-town tourists. Scores of grief-stricken people assembled in the tour boats parking lot and at a local church. Mayor Karen Best said earlier Branson is typically a city “full of smiles. But today we are grieving and crying.”
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard are investigating the tragedy. Another duck boat carrying passengers also got caught up in the storm but it made it safely to shore.
Duck boats are made for transport on land and water. They were used by the military in World War II to transport troops and supplies. Later they became popular amphibious sightseeing vessels in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle and resort communities. But they have mixed safety records.
Thirteen people drowned on May 2, 1999, on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs, Arkansas, when a duck boat took on water due to a mechanical failure. The NTSB investigation blamed inadequate maintenance for the accident, and also recommended such boats remove their hard top canopies and require all passengers to wear life jackets at the outset of a tour as additional safety measures. Neither recommendation was adopted as a mandatory regulation by the Coast Guard, which registers and inspects duck boats.
Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment Inc. of Orlando, Florida, owner of Ride the Ducks Branson, said the boats are stocked with life jackets but passengers are not required to wear them. He said the lake was calm when the ill-fated boat left the dock on Thursday evening and that the storm came on quickly once the vessel was in the water for several minutes.
Pattison said the boats normally spend 15 to 20 minutes in the water on a circular route on Table Rock Lake.
He did not answer questions why the boat and a companion vessel went onto the lake at a time the U.S. Weather Bureau in nearby Springfield, Missouri, was predicting major storms for the area.
The Stone County Sheriff’s Office released the list of those who died:
n Arya Coleman, 1, Indianapolis.
n Maxwell Coleman, 2, Indianapolis.
n Evan Coleman, 7, Indianapolis.
n Reece Coleman, 9, Indianapolis.
n Glenn Coleman, 40, Indianapolis.
n Angela Coleman, 45, Indianapolis.
n Belinda Coleman, 69, Indianapolis.
n Horace Coleman, 70, Indianapolis.
n Ervin Coleman, 76, Indianapolis.
n William Asher, 69, St. Louis.
n Rosemarie Hamann, 68, St. Louis.
n Leslie Dennison, 64, Illinois.
n Lance Smith, 15, Osceola, Arkansas.
n Steve Smith, 53, Osceola, Arkansas.
n Janice Bright, 63, Higginsville, Missouri.
n William Bright, 65, Higginsville, Missouri.
n Bob Williams, 73, duck boat driver, Branson.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.