A week after joining Republican fellow Missourian Roy Blunt on the Senate floor for back-to-back presentations, Democrat Claire McCaskill has a safety plan.
The two Show-Me State Senators addressed their colleagues last Tuesday about the Duck Boat tragedy that claimed 17 lives.
Blunt said he’d be following a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation after one of the amphibious vehicles sunk when it took in water during a heavy storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson the previous week.
McCaskill recalled a previous NTSB probe after 13 people were killed in a similar Duck Boat mishap on an Arkansas lake in 1999. She said last Tuesday that she was in the beginning stages of drafting a bill to respond to the latest tragedy. Today, she introduced it.
McCaskill’s announcement comes after a whirlwind of activity surrounding the Table Rock Lake incident Monday in which two lawsuits emerged and a criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office was made public.
The measure follows through on major recommendations made by the NTSB in 2002 after the Arkansas tragedy.
It calls on the Coast Guard to formulate regulations requiring that Duck Boats have adequate buoyancy to stay afloat when they become flooded.
Currently, the Coast Guard inspects the amphibious vehicles, but only to determine if they’re complying with rules such as supplying enough personal flotation devices. For its part, the NTSB has no power of enforcement and can only make recommendations.
Operators of the amphibious vehicles would have two years to comply with the new requirement once the bill became law.
The proposal also has interim requirements, which include either the removal of canopy roofs or the installation of Coast Guard-approved canopies that don’t restrict horizontal or vertical escape by passengers if the Duck Boat sinks. The NTSB determined existing canopies fatally entrapped passengers inside the vehicle when the boat in Arkansas went down.
If an operator chose to remove canopy roofs from its Duck Boats, passengers would have to wear Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices before the vehicles could enter the water.
Another interim requirement is for vehicles to have independently powered electric bilge pumps to remove water from their hulls. No fewer than four independently powered bilge alarms that detect water would also have to be installed.
Prior to purchasing the Branson Duck Boat operations in December, current owner Ripley Entertainment hired an inspector, Steven Paul, who warned the vehicles’ engines and the bilge pumps might fail in bad weather due to the improper placement of the boats’ exhaust system. Paul said that in rough conditions water could get into the exhaust system, and then into the motor, cutting it and the bilge pump it powers off.
McCaskill’s four-page Senate bill further would call for increased inspections until all Duck Boats were upgraded.
Her proposal hasn’t received universal support in the world of politics. Republican State Representative Scott Fitzpatrick of Shell Knob tweeted his desire for “professionals” to finish their investigation before McCaskill, “who knows nothing about these sorts of things, flies into action with a bill.”
— Scott Fitzpatrick (@FitzpatrickMO) July 25, 2018
That sentiment is not shared by attorney Andrew Duffy, who is a member of the legal team that’s brought a $100 million lawsuit against Ripley Entertainment. He’s is praising McCaskill’s efforts. “I think especially Senator McCaskill is the voice that we need nationally to start putting the spotlight on Duck Boat safety,” said Duffy.
In the rollout of her measure, McCaskill acknowledged that an NTSB investigation will take time, but also made mention of the many years when no action was taken to improve safety after the agency made recommendations following the Arkansas tragedy.
“Nearly 20 years ago following a similar incident, recommendations were made to help prevent tragedies like we experienced in Branson but they were largely ignored,” McCaskill said. “It’ll take some time before we know exactly what went wrong in Branson, but there’s absolutely no reason to wait to take this commonsense step.”
Like Senator Blunt, McCaskill traveled to Branson the day after the Duck Boat mishap. During that trip, she claims she met with members of the Missouri Highway Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board, and those assisting in the search and rescue and family assistance.
McCaskill is currently in a tight race to keep her Senate seat with likely Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Polling shows the contest practically tied with less than 100 days until the November election.