NTSB Blame Ripley’s, Coast Guard in Duck Boat Tragedy

The National Transportation Safety Board held a board meeting on Tuesday that assigned blame in the deadly duck boat accident on Table Rock Lake.

The NTSB placed blame on Ripley Entertainment Inc./Ride The Ducks of Branson and the Coast Guard in their probable cause statement:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the sinking of the amphibious passenger vessel Stretch Duck 7 was Ripley Entertainment Inc. dba Ride the Ducks of Branson’s continued operation of waterborne tours after a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Table Rock Lake, exposing the vessel to a derecho, which resulted in waves flooding through a non-weathertight air intake hatch on the bow. Contributing to the sinking was the Coast Guard’s failure to require sufficient reserve buoyancy in amphibious vessels.

Contributing to the loss of life was the Coast Guard’s ineffective action to address emergency egress on amphibious passenger vessels with fixed canopies, such as the Stretch Duck 7, which
impeded passenger escape.

NTSB officials gave praise to the crew and the passengers who were on the nearby Showboat Branson Belle as the tragedy was unfolding, specifically stating that their actions saved lives.

A finding of the NTSB that might raise eyebrows is that investigators say more people would have died had the people on the duck boat been wearing life jackets. Because of the canopy on the boat, the passengers would have floated upward into the canopy and been unable to escape if they had on life jackets; the lack of jackets allowed them to swim downward and out away from the boat.

Investigators acknowledged that goes against current recommendations for boaters.

Here are the 19 official findings of the NTSB:

  1. The bilge pump and steering operations were not a factor in the sinking.
  2. Impairments by drugs or alcohol were not a factor in the sinking.
  3. The National Weather Service provided accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings, not a factor in sinking.
  4. Ride the Ducks did not effectively use their weather information to the best of their ability, and access risk to operations is a factor in sinking.
  5. Ride the Ducks should have suspended water-born operations of last tours of the day in anticipation of imminent severe weather, is a factor in sinking.
  6. Ride the Ducks should have had more guidance on when to suspend operations due to weather (‘go-no-go policy’), which is a factor in sinking.
  7. The captain of Stretch Duck 7 did believe he could safely get back from the water tour to the dock.
  8. The captain’s decision to head towards the exit ramp was appropriate.
  9. The bow hatch (air intake) in the front of the boat let water into the engine department, is a factor in sinking.
  10. The boat sank so rapidly as a result of uncontrolled flooding because of a lack of subdivision in the vessel.
  11. Had the Coast Guard implemented safety recommendations from the NTSB on adding reserve buoyancy to the vessels, the boat likely would not have sunk.
  12. The Stretch Duck 54 was able to exit the lake due to being under the same conditions because it was a different type of duck boat with better features (bow hatch, buoyancy, etc.)
  13. The closed curtains on the starboard side during sinking made it harder for passengers to escape and likely caused some fatalities.
  14. Donning life jackets when the boat was sinking could have made it harder to escape, and could have resulted in additional fatalities.
  15. Actions by crew and passengers aboard the Show Boat Branson Belle prevented more fatalities.
  16. The response by EMS was timely and effective.
  17. Improved training is needed for small passenger vessel operators to know and better understand weather conditions.
  18. Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) didn’t adequately address NTSB recommendations to remove canopies and likely increased the number of fatalities.
  19. NVIC does not account for circumstances in the accident, including operations during approaching severe weather and escape options for passengers, which needs to be updated.

Tia Coleman, who lost nine members of her family in the accident, was searching for some good from the tragedy. She hopes the NTSB’s admonishments are taken seriously by those involved in the incident.

“The images the NTSB presented today run through my mind every day as I struggle to understand why this tragedy happened and continue to mourn,” Coleman said in a statement.  “I hope that the Duck Boat industry and Coast Guard listened hard today and make the necessary changes moving forward.”

Coleman’s attorney, Robert Mongeluzzi, was much more blunt in his comments about the report:

“Today, the NTSB continued to sound the alarm that the Coast Guard and the Duck Boat industry has ignored for over 20 years,” Mongeluzzi said in a statement.  “Duck Boats are death traps, which when flooded become sinking coffins.  The Coast Guard and Duck Boat industry have the blood of these Branson victims on their hands for continuing to ignore the warnings.  Hopefully this time, they will listen.”

Here’s the actual report:


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