Both of Missouri’s U.S. Senators took to the chamber’s floor Tuesday to discuss last Thursday’s Duck Boat tragedy on Table Rock Lake near Branson.
Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill addressed the body in a bipartisan manner while mentioning events surrounding the mishap and proposing steps moving forward.
Blunt said he and McCaskill discussed the importance of making sure mental health counseling is available to survivors and first responders. He noted employees of the adjacent Branson Belle Showboat dove into the lake to provide assistance while workers at a nearby boat launch used watercraft to help with rescue efforts.
Both Senators made mention of a similar mass casualty event where a Duck Boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1999, killing 13 of the 21 people aboard. 17 of 31 passengers died Thursday when the same type of craft capsized and sank in southwest Missouri, about 200 miles north of where the Arkansas mishap occurred.
Blunt said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will now be asking the same questions it did after the previous tragedy that took place almost 20 years earlier.
“Did the Coast Guard do what they were supposed to do? Did the operators do what they were supposed to do? Did the equipment do what it was supposed to do?” said Blunt. “And certainly, we’ll be looking at the report to decide what needs to happen.”
Such a report will likely take time. The NTSB took three years before it released its findings from the Arkansas mishap.
Blunt ticked off a list of other major incidents the federal agency is investigating while mentioning the importance of confirming two nominees to its board that have been waiting for Senate consideration for “many months”, a Republican and a Democrat. He said he’d received assurance that the Senate would be moving forward with the confirmation process Tuesday to make sure the NTSB could function at its full capacity.
Blunt assured his colleagues in the chamber that he along with Senator McCaskill and Republican Congressman Billy Long, whose district includes Branson and Table Rock Lake would be following the NTSB investigation.
For her part, Senator McCaskill said the Missouri State Highway Patrol divers may have had the toughest job in the state or the country last Friday when they were charged with finding the bodies of passengers who died while trapped underwater in “this amphibious vehicle” at the bottom of one of the “most beautiful lakes in the world”.
She remarked that the only silver lining to the tragedy was the fact that it occurred in a part of the state where there’s a great deal of love, referring to an open disposition Branson area residents have toward travelers and tourists.
McCaskill proclaimed that the Ozarks region has some of the most beautiful terrain God has created while acknowledging that a lake Missourians are proud of turned dark with last Thursday’s incident.
The former state auditor said she had learned that the two nominees for the NTSB board would be approved by the end of the day Tuesday, adding that it was sad that it would take such a tragedy to prompt the move. She expressed frustration that no safety improvements had been made in the nearly 20 years since the Arkansas mishap and brought up three other Duck Boat disasters in Ontario, Canada, Philadelphia, and Seattle that resulted in 11 deaths.
McCaskill then outlined results from a 2002 NTSB report that blamed the Arkansas accident on the vehicle’s lack of adequate buoyancy that would have allowed it to remain afloat in a flooded condition, as well as a shortage of adequate oversight by the Coast Guard, and a canopy roof that tends to entrap passengers within the sinking vehicle.
While there’s been a lot of attention paid to the fact that none of the passengers in the Table Rock Lake incident were wearing life vests, McCaskill stated that doing so would have worsened their survival chances.
“If someone has a life jacket on and one of these vehicles goes down in the water, they get trapped against the roof even more, because the buoyancy of the life jacket holds them against the roof and makes it even more difficult for them to get to some point of ingress or egress,” McCaskill said. “These are not open vehicles.”
The two-term Senator likened the Duck Boat experience to being on a bus or in an airplane on the water. She then announced her plan to introduce a measure to address design flaws in the vehicles that have been identified by the NTSB.
“I’m in the early stages of drafting legislation with input from the NTSB and the Coast Guard to require that the design issues with these passenger vessels be addressed and that the boats that are not compliant be taken out of service until they can be compliant.”
McCaskill further stated that the biggest shortcoming the Duck Boats have is their lack of reserve buoyancy to keep them afloat when taking on water. She said if the buoyancy issued couldn’t be solved quickly, then the canopies should be removed from the vessels so that passengers could escape what amounts to a “sinking coffin”.
McCaskill also took time to recognize all 17 victims who died when the vehicle sank in Table Rock Lake by mentioning each of them by name and age.