Federal transportation safety investigators are recommending changes in the wake of a 2018 duck boat sinking in southwest Missouri’s Branson. Seventeen of the 31 people aboard the boat called Stretch Duck 7 died after a storm swept in at Table Rock Lake with winds around 70 miles per hour.
The recommendations call for the boat’s owner – Ripley Entertainment – to make safety changes to the vessels and policies for workers to follow during bad weather. The National Transportation Safety Board also says the U.S. Coast Guard’s failure to require sufficient design of amphibious vessels contributed to the boat’s sinking.
In their investigation, NTSB investigators documented that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the area, several hours before the sinking. That watch was followed by a severe thunderstorm warning 23 minutes before Stretch Duck 7 departed the shoreside boarding facility about 6 miles from the lake where the tours began and ended. Investigators noted three other company vessels also departed after the severe thunderstorm warning was issued.
During Tuesday’s National Transportation Safety Board meeting, Chairman Robert Sumwalt says if Ride the Ducks Branson employees would have made better decisions on July 19, 2018, the boat likely would not have sunk. Investigator Brian Young says workers failed to inform the captain of the approaching storm.
“When he (captain) arrived at the lake, from what he could see the sky was blue. We know from the camera that the lake was calm. We don’t believe that he understood the intensity or how fast the storm was moving and the warning was never communicated to him from anybody in management,” says Young.
Board Vice Chair Bruce Landsberg says the captain is the final authority in the safe operation of the boat.
“The whole concept of checks and balances come in that if you have a single point failure – ie the management not saying anything – then you have the secondary source there,” says Landsberg. “Looking at the sky, I find it hard to believe that it just went from blue to black immediately. But be that as it may, I guess we could continue the discussion here as to what did the captain know, when did he know it and was he thinking about it? Severe thunderstorms are not an unusual occurrence in the state of Missouri and this captain had been on the water for a long time.”
The investigation also found an inability to discuss what happened with the captain, Scott McKee of Verona, to determine his course of action and decision making. Three Ripley employees, including McKee, have been charged in connection to the boat sinking. The company has settled 31 lawsuits filed by survivors or relatives of those who died.
Sumwalt says the boats played an important role in the 1944 invasion of Normandy.
“The allies had to wait a day for better weather before they could proceed,” he says. “If D-Day had to pause for safety, so can recreational tours.”
An abstract of the NTSB’s final report, which includes the findings, probable cause, and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xvEzG. The final report for the investigation is expected to be published in the next few weeks.
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