Nine members of one family were among 17 people killed when an amphibious US tourist boat capsized during a sudden storm on a Missouri lake, a tragedy which raised renewed questions on Saturday about the safety of the craft known as “duck” boats.
The hybrid vessels, with wheels allowing them to drive on city roads but which can also travel on water, are popular with tourists in many cities.
The accident occurred Thursday night in full view of witnesses, at least one of whom captured video of the vessel bobbing in rough waters on Table Rock Lake near the city of Branson, a vacation destination popular for its theatres and country music.
“My heart is very heavy. Out of 11 of us there’s only two that’s surviving, that’s me and my nephew” Tia Coleman, her voice breaking told Fox59 from her hospital bed.
“I lost all of my children. I lost my husband. I lost my mother-in-law and my father-in-law,” along with other relatives, she told the Indianapolis TV station.
Coleman said the boat’s captain had told passengers earlier in their trip that they “won’t need” life jackets.
“He said it when we were in the water,” she told Fox59. “When it was time to grab them, it was too late and I believe that a lot of people could have been spared.”
She added that the water “didn’t look ominous at the very first.”
– ‘Let me die’ –
Coleman told CNN affiliate KOLR of her own near-death by drowning: “I was yelling, I was screaming, and finally I said, ‘Lord, just let me die, let me die.’ She eventually floated to the surface.
Early Saturday, the Stone County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to AFP the identity of the 17 victims — nine of whom had the name, Coleman.
They ranged in age from one-year-old Arya Coleman to the oldest victim Ervin Coleman, 76.
Five of the dead were aged 15 or younger.
Police said 31 people were aboard the vessel, which was covered by a canopy and was seen struggling to reach shore against strong winds before it succumbed to the waves and began to sink.
The dead included the boat’s driver, according to the sheriff’s office. The other crew member, who survived, was in charge when the craft took to the water, US media reported.
Several people were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has taken over the investigation, which follows previous fatal accidents involving duck boats.
In 2002 the agency recommended that amphibious vehicles provide “reserve buoyancy” such as through watertight compartmentalization, to keep them afloat in the event of flooding.
The advisory followed the 1999 sinking of Miss Majestic, a former US Army landing vehicle, with the loss of 13 lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas, because of “inadequate maintenance.”
Until reserve buoyancy retrofits were completed, the NTSB urged other safety measures including the removal of canopies or installation of canopies that would not restrict passenger escape.
It also found that, at that time, the US Coast Guard lacked uniform, nationwide inspection policies for duck boats.
– ‘Deathtraps’ –
In 2011 the NTSB ruled that “omissions” by a duck boat operator contributed to an accident in which two duck passengers died when a tugboat operator became distracted and the barge he was towing hit the duck vessel, sinking it near Philadelphia in 2010.
“Duck boats are death traps,” the Chicago Tribune on Friday quoted Andrew Duffy, a lawyer whose Philadelphia firm handled litigation related to fatal duck boat accidents. “They’re not fit for water or land because they are a half car and half boat.”
Thursday’s incident occurred during heavy winds as a storm moved over the man-made lake in southern Missouri. The duck boat was one of two in the water at the time but the other safely reached shore.
Among the unanswered questions were whether the boat crew was aware of weather warnings and whether passengers were wearing life vests.
“From what I understand, there were life jackets in the duck (boat),” Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said.
The vessel was owned by Ripley Entertainment company, whose “Ride the Ducks” website on Saturday said the business is closed “while we support the investigation.”
“Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking,” it said. “The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority.”