(Andrew Jansen/The Springfield News-Leader via AP)

Branson, Missouri Mourns For 17 Killed After Tour Boat Capsizes, Sinks

July 20, 2018 - 8:15 am

BRANSON, Mo. (WCBS 880/AP) —  Divers found four more bodies Friday in a Missouri lake where a duck boat packed with tourists capsized and sank in high winds, bringing the death toll to 17 in the country-and-western town of Branson, authorities said.

Investigators blamed stormy weather for the accident Thursday evening on Table Rock Lake. Winds at the time were blowing as hard as 65 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

The boat was carrying 29 passengers and two crew members on a pleasure cruise, and authorities said everyone aboard had been accounted for. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt when the vessel went down. At least two were hospitalized in critical condition, officials said.

"Branson is a city full of smiles," Mayor Karen Best said. "We have so much fun here. But today we are grieving and crying."

The crew member who was operating the boat died, but the captain survived, authorities 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."

Authorities did not publicly identify the dead but said they included a 1-year-old child.

A survivor from the family who lost nine relatives said the captain told passengers not to bother grabbing life jackets.

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."

But CBS News Transportation Safety Analyst Mark Rosenker emphasized that duck boats have a long history and are unlikely to go anywhere.

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.

“They’ve been around for more than 77 years. They were originally built for the U.S. Army to be almost like a ferry boat where they would bring supplies; they would bring ammunition; they would bring equipment from ships that were anchored offshore, and they would bring them into the beaches where the soldiers would take it off. So the first one that actually became a tour boat was in 1946, so they’ve been around quite a bit,” he said.

Rosenker said duck boats are very popular and rarely have such problems, but an accident involving a duck boat can be catastrophic.

Safety advocates have sought improvements and complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements.

Passengers on a nearby boat described the chaos as the winds picked up and the water turned rough.

"Debris was flying everywhere," Allison Lester said in an interview Friday with ABC's "Good Morning America."

A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for Branson at 6:32 p.m. Thursday, about 40 minutes before the boat tipped over.

“There were some severe weather notices going out before noon Central Time, and the Ride the Ducks company there says that they go out rain or shine, and I assume that’s how the company felt when it went out yesterday evening,” said Joe Murano of KOLR-TV 10 Springfield.

Lester's boyfriend, Trent Behr, said they saw a woman in the water and helped to pull her into the boat. He said he was about to start CPR when an EMT arrived and took over.

Investigators from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board were to investigate. Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader urged anyone with video or photos of the accident to contact authorities.

Divers located the vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lakebed, and authorities planned to recover it later Friday.

The boat sank in 40 feet of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 80 feet of water. Investigators had no information about whether passengers were wearing life jackets or whether they were stowed onboard, the sheriff said.

An off-duty deputy working security for the boat company helped rescue people after the boat turned over, the sheriff said. Dive teams from several law enforcement agencies assisted in the effort.

Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said the company was assisting authorities. She said this was the ride's only accident in more than 40 years of operation.

Weather can change rapidly in this part of the country, moving from sunshine and calm to dangerous storms within minutes, weather service meteorologist Jason Schaumann said.

"Tornado warnings get a lot of publicity, and severe thunderstorm warnings should be taken very seriously too, particularly if you are in a vulnerable area like a lake or campground," he said.

Rosenker said many factors would enter into the investigation, including the captain’s judgment on taking the boat given the forecast.

 “Well, certainly that’s going to be looked at very carefully. When did they get these messages from the Weather Service? Who made the decision to actually go out? The captain, of course, should be the ultimate authority to make a decision like that,” Rosenker told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Joe Avellar. “But we just don’t know yet. Clearly, accidents are more than one thing, and what you see are a number of events that come together to give you a tragic ending, and that’s what we’ve seen at this time.”

President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences, extending his "deepest sympathies" to the families and friends of those involved.

Branson, about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City, is a country-themed tourist mecca built on a reputation for patriotic and religious-themed shows in numerous theaters.

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.

“The lake, it’s really a vacation destination in southwest Missouri. A lot of Missourians will go there. It’s right near Arkansas and Oklahoma as well, so you get a lot of vacationers. There’s a lot of theaters there. There’s a lot of shows that go on. It’s a very vacationy area,” Murano said.

He said to his knowledge, no similar accidents had happened on the lake, but the weather just caused severe waves and dangerous winds.

(©2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)