The company that owned the capsized duck boat that recently left seventeen dead in Missouri was reportedly warned by a private inspector last year that design flaws could put its boats at greater risk of sinking. Additionally, a report by a government safety agency highlighted the structural dangers of duck boats nearly two decades ago, though its proposed remedies were voluntary and not widely adopted by the industry.
Duck Boat Caught in Severe Thunderstorm
On the early evening of July 19, 2018, a duck boat entered Table Rock Lake near Branson, MO. The duck boat – an amphibious vehicle modeled after World War II watercraft that can travel on both land and water – was carrying 31 passengers as part of a “Ride the Ducks Branson” sightseeing tour. Ride the Ducks Branson, owned and operated by Ripley Entertainment, Inc., offers tours scheduled to last approximately 70 minutes, with roughly half of the time spent on land and the other half on water.
According to weather data, the first gusts of wind arrived at Table Rock Lake at 6:59 p.m., ahead of a severe thunderstorm. The duck boat reportedly took on water, capsized, and sank to the bottom of the lake by 7:09 p.m., when authorities received the first 911 call about the sinking vessel.
Seventeen people were killed in the incident, including the duck boat’s driver and nine members of the same family. The Coast Guard were unable to remove the duck boat from Table Rock Lake until Monday, July 23.
Troubling Questions Emerge
A number of troubling questions have emerged in the days following this tragedy.
Weather reports show that counties to the northwest of the Branson area had been issued thunderstorm warnings at 5:45 p.m., over an hour before the duck boat sank, while the Branson area itself was placed under a severe thunderstorm warning shortly after 6:30 p.m. The storm that sunk the duck boat was part of the same weather system that had generated damaging wind gusts in Kansas and destructive tornadoes in Iowa earlier that day.
Given the advance warnings about the impending thunderstorm and the destruction already left in the weather system’s wake, should the duck boat even have been on the water at all?
“My understanding was that when the boat went in the water, it was calm. And partway through coming back is when … the waves picked up and obviously swamped the boat,” Ripley Entertainment President Jim Pattison, Jr. told CNN the following day.
In a separate interview with CBS This Morning, Pattison suggested that, in hindsight, the duck boat “shouldn’t have been in the water.”
Surviving passenger Tia Coleman told reporters that passengers were informed that a storm was coming before the duck boat left the shore, though conditions did not seem cloudy when the vessel first got onto the lake.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are attempting to determine what caused the duck boat to sink. The investigation could take as long as a year to complete, according to an agency spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the Missouri State Highway Patrol is looking into the incident to determine whether any criminal acts were committed. Of particular concern is the fact that the duck boat apparently changed the route it took that day.
According to Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, the investigators want to know “when did the driver and [the captain] of this vessel know about this storm forecast? When did they decide to alter the route of the boat? Because they did alter the route of the boat. When did they decide that? Why?”
A notice on the website for Ride the Ducks Branson says that the company will pay for related medical bills and funeral expenses, return all personal items rescued from the scene, and help with any travel costs or accommodations for the families, though orders from the NTSB prevent it from commenting further.
Company Warned About Duck Boat Design Flaws
One private inspector claims that he specifically warned Ride the Ducks Branson about potentially dangerous design flaws in its duck boats less than a year before the recent catastrophe.
Steve Paul, of the St. Louis-based Test Drive Technologies inspection service, told the Associated Press that he issued a written report for Ride the Ducks Branson in August 2017. (Note: Ripley Entertainment, Inc. reportedly purchased Ride the Ducks Branson in December 2017, four months after Paul’s inspection. )
Paul’s report detailed how the duck boats’ engines and pumps could fail to remove water from their hulls in bad weather. Paul also noted how the vessels’ overhead canopies could make it harder for passengers to escape the duck boats if they sank.
Widespread Problem in Duck Boat Tour Industry
If Ride the Ducks Branson failed to remedy the design flaws of its vessels, it would hardly be the first duck boat company to fall short of the mark. Critics contend that the duck boat tour industry as a whole has done little to implement safety guidelines recommended by the federal government nearly two decades ago.
At least thirty people in the United States have died in accidents involving duck boats in the past twenty years. In 1999, for example, thirteen of the 21 people aboard died when a duck boat sank in Hot Springs, AK. The NTSB found that the boat sank because it took on water too quickly and lacked reserve buoyancy to help it float. Additionally, the NTSB argued that the boat’s canopy proved to be a major impediment to the passengers’ survival, echoing Paul’s later report for Ride the Ducks Branson.
The Arkansas incident prompted the NTSB to issue safety recommendations for other duck boat operators to follow to improve passenger safety, including retrofitting the vessels for reserve buoyancy to help keep them afloat in case of flooding and removing the canopies to allow passengers to escape more easily when the boats are underwater.
The NTSB’s proposed guidelines were voluntary, however, because the agency has no regulatory power to enforce them. Perhaps predictably, these recommendations were not widely implemented in the ensuing two decades, with duck boat tour companies citing the prohibitive cost of engineering and installing additional flotation capacity. Critics have argued that dozens of preventable deaths have occurred as a result.
In response to the unfortunate event at Table Rock Lake, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said that she and her colleagues would take a look at possible legislation, adding that “I’m not going to rest until we get something in the law on a national basis that does a better job of regulating the safety of amphibious vehicles.”
Jim Hall, who was NTSB Chairman when the 1999 Arkansas sinking occurred, was blunter in his assessment.
“They’re not safe,” Hall said. “State authorities should ban them for recreational usages.”