Amphibious duck tours like the one that killed 17 people in Branson, Missouri, last week should be banned, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
Former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, who served under President Bill Clinton, said the Thursday sinking on Table Rock Lake seemed eerily similar to a 1999 duck boat incident that killed 13 people in Arkansas. Hall said duck-boat tours are essentially unregulated amusement park rides, a criticism others have leveled because the amphibious vehicles don't fall neatly into being either a boat or a bus.
“My feeling after seeing this one is that the only thing to do in the name of public safety is to ban them," Hall told USA TODAY. "I think it’s the responsible thing to do to ensure (riders) are not put at risk.”
Following that 1999 fatal sinking in Arkansas, the NTSB recommended that duck-boat operators install additional flotation devices to ensure the low-riding vehicles would stay afloat even if their engines and bilge pumps stopped working.
Duck boats, based on World War II military landing craft known as DUKWs, are popular with tourists because they permit sightseeing on both land and water. But the vehicles were never designed for extended use, and some duck-boat operators have significantly modified them to handle extra passengers and extend their operating seasons.
The Coast Guard announced Sunday that salvage crews will begin Monday to raise the Missouri duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake, killing 17 of the 31 people aboard.
A crane from a southwest Missouri salvage operation, Fitzco Marine Group, has already been brought to a staging area, near the Showboat Branson Belle, according to photographs provided by the Coast Guard. A Fitzco representative declined to comment Sunday.
Divers are expected to swim down and connect the duck boat to a crane, which will then try to lift the boat from where it rests beneath 80 feet of water, according to a Coast Guard official.
The salvage operations were tentatively scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday and will be coordinated with Ride the Ducks, the company that operated the tour vehicle, before the vehicle is turned over to the NTSB, according to the Coast Guard.
Salvage operations were planned as relatives and friends continued to mourn the victims.
At a Sunday morning service at Zion Tabernacle Apostolic Church in Indianapolis, Suffragan Bishop Thomas E. Griffith announced that Tia Coleman was out of the hospital and heading home to Indianapolis after the Thursday tragedy.
Nine members of her family died in the accident, including her three children and her husband.
"We all have been touched by it and we're all struggling because we all love Tia," said Beverly Reese, a Zion Tabernacle member since 1985 who has known Tia Coleman since she was a little girl. "I had her through children's ministry. I was there when she graduated from high school. She is just a very, very sweet child, and we just want to tell her that we love her and we're praying like never before because we know this takes God and him only."
About 300 people attended a Sunday afternoon service at Williams Memorial Chapel at College of the Ozarks, where a bell chimed 17 times for the victims.
“Our lives were changed forever. Hearts were broken,” Branson Mayor Karen Best said. “We honor the 14 survivors. And we honor the many heroes who did everything in their power to save lives.”
The U.S. Coast Guard said the boat that sank was built in 1944 and has passed an inspection in February, the Kansas City Star reported. The company operating the Branson duck boats has halted service.
Divers have recovered a video recorder from the sunken duck boat that may provide clues to the disaster. The recorder will be analyzed at an NTSB lab in Washington, D.C., but it's still unclear whether the recorder was working at the time of the fatal capsizing or whether any of its data can be retrieved.
Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said it was also unclear whether the Branson duck boat's video-recording device had any audio capabilities. The device was recovered by divers, a team of which had been searching a cove on Table Rock Lake to locate the boat and the bodies of the deceased.
Investigators have also interviewed some of the survivors, Holloway said, as well as people on another duck boat that was on the lake at the same time but managed to avoid swamping and crashing.
Federal officials have warned tourists for nearly 20 years about the dangers posed by amphibious tour boats, which have spotty and sometimes contradictory safety regulations because they are neither entirely boat nor bus. Operators have lengthened some of the boats from their original designs and sometimes have added canopies and see-through vinyl "walls," allowing them to operate in bad weather.
In its analysis of the 1999 duck-boat sinking, the NTSB said the Coast Guard failed to adequately oversee the private operation, and that the owner failed to properly maintain a seal, allowing water to seep aboard the vehicle, the Miss Majestic.
"Contributing to the sinking was a flaw in the design of DUKWs as converted for passenger service, that is, the lack of adequate reserve buoyancy that would have allowed the vehicle to remain afloat in a flooded condition," the NTSB said. "Contributing to the high loss of life was a continuous canopy roof that entrapped passengers within the sinking vehicle."
A witness’s video of the Branson duck boat just before it capsized suggests that its flexible plastic windows might have been closed and could have trapped passengers as the hybrid boat-truck went down. It does not show passengers jumping clear.
“There are some things that stick out in your mind, and the thought of a canopy coming over a child that can’t swim, without any type of life jacket on… is frightening," Hall said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, the company declined to comment and referred all inquiries to the NTSB. Its website now carries a statement of sorrow, along with the image of a black ribbon: "The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority. Ride the Ducks will be closed for business while we support the investigation, and to allow time to grieve for the families and the community. Thank you for your support, and we ask that your thoughts and prayers be with the families during this time."
Because the boats travel on land and in water, they are regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard requires life jackets on boats but leaves it to the vessel's master to tell passengers when to wear the jackets during hazardous situations. The NTSB has recommended passengers not wear life jackets on boats that have canopies because when the vehicles sink, the life jackets can float passengers into the canopy, preventing escape.
The NTSB, which makes non-binding safety recommendations, has urged the removal of canopies from the vehicles to reduce the risk of drowning.
The agency has also recommended the highway administration regulate the vehicles for over-the-road travel with requirements for passenger seat belts, while saying that passengers shouldn't wear seat belts while the vehicle is in the water.
Multiple agencies are now investigating the Branson duck boat disaster.
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