Missouri Duck Boat Accident

Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP

Mo. Lawmaker Calls For Duck Boat Safety Improvements After Accident Kills 17

July 23, 2018 - 7:24 pm
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BRANSON, Mo. (WCBS 880/CBS News/AP) -- A Missouri lawmaker on Monday said change is needed to improve the safety of amphibious vehicles like duck boats after 17 people were killed when one sunk last week at Table Rock Lake near Branson.

Cassville Republican Sen. David Sater on Monday said he was waiting on the results of the federal investigation into Thursday's accident, but pledged that "this issue will not get dropped."

Another local lawmaker, Republican Rep. Don Phillips, says he's not sure whether there's a legislative fix. But he questioned why passengers were not wearing life jackets. He said it would be a commonsense policy to wear them while on the lake.

Missouri law requires boat passengers ages 7 and younger to wear life jackets whenever they're on the water, but commercial vessels like the duck boat that sank are exempt. Three of the people who died Thursday were age 7 or younger.

The boat was pulled from the lake on Monday, and was taken to a “secure location,” where the National Transportation Safety Board took custody of it.

CBS News Correspondent Jim Krasula watched as the boat was removed.

“I can tell you it was very numbing to see as they brought this boat up from only about 80 feet of water, and I was struck by the way – at how close this happened; duck boat sank – how close it was to shore. This is a massive, massive lake that extends down into Arkansas, but this happened just within 100 yards of shore – the length of a football field,” he said.

Krasula noted that he saw numerous lifejackets that were never used as the boat was pulled from the water.

“As they raised this up slowly, the first thing you saw were bright orange, unused life preservers, and as they raised the boat up even more out of the water, you could see initially one or two, then four or five, 10, 15 of them. They were caught up. They were stuck. They were wedged into the cage top of this duck boat. There’s also, Kevin and Michael, on this duck boat, a white canvas cover, and much of that was peeled back. It looked to me like the windows – the breakout, push-out windows – on the right side of the duck boat were still intact. But on the left side, the driver’s side, all of those windows were gone,” he said.

The boat, which was submerged in 80 feet of water, went down Thursday evening after a sudden thunderstorm generated near-hurricane strength winds.

Divers attached a sling to the boat, then raised the vessel. Once it was brought to the surface, it was drained, Coast Guard Capt. Scott Stoermer told reporters. The vessel will be loaded onto a vehicle and transported to a facility where the National Transportation Safety Board will take custody of it, Stoermer said.

Loren Smith, 14, was one of the survivors of the accident. She said she managed to swim out of the sinking boat to safety. Her father, Steve Smith, a 53-year-old church deacon, and her 15-year-old brother Lance were among the 17 people who died.

"I saw someone struggling. I went up to push up their feet so they could get help. But the waves were too big, I couldn't go back to save that person. It could have been my brother. It could have been my dad," she told "CBS This Morning."

Missouri State Highway Patrol chaplain Steve Martin said the family's survival was "remarkable" and that there is no explanation for it. He said the relatives, who found safety in different ways, were suffering from survivors' guilt.

Divers have recovered a video-recording device that was aboard the boat, although it's unclear whether it was working when the boat capsized or whether any data can be retrieved, including audio. The recorder was headed to the NTSB lab in Washington, D.C.

Steve Paul, owner of the Test Drive Technologies inspection service in the St. Louis area, said he issued a written report in August 2017 for Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, after inspecting two dozen boats. In the report, he explained why the vessels' engines -- and pumps that remove water from their hulls -- might fail in inclement weather.

Paul said he would not know if the boat that sank is one that he inspected until it has been recovered from the lake.

Ripley Entertainment, which owns the duck boat business in Branson, has not responded to questions about Paul's concerns.

The company's website said it was offering to pay for all medical and funeral expenses for victims, to return all personal items from the accident scene and to help with families' travel or accommodations. The company also said it was offering grief counseling for its own employees.

Ripley has made few comments since Friday, except to say that the accident was the company's first in more than 40 years in Branson.

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