NTSB Releases Preliminary Timeline of Deadly Missouri Duck Boat Accident

One of the first stages of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into a Duck Boat sinking in Missouri that killed 17 people is complete. The agency released its initial review of the digital video recorder system that was on the Duck Boat and assembled a preliminary timeline of the fatal events on Table Rock Lake on July 19, 2018.

The accident is the worst Duck Boat accident since the vehicles began their use for tourism purposes. It has reignited fears over the safety of the amphibious vehicles, which have long been criticized as loosely regulated and having safety flaws. The NTSB recommended increased safety standards for Duck Boats when a poorly-maintained Duck Boat sank in Arkansas in 1999, killing 13 people, but many if not all of those recommendations went largely ignored.

Initial NTSB Review Shows Sequence of Events that Led to the Branson Duck Boat Disaster 

The NTSB is just beginning a lengthy investigation into the Branson, Missouri Duck Boat accident. The United States Coast Guard and the state of Missouri are also conducting in-depth investigations into the incident.

In one of the first releases on its investigation, the NTSB published a preliminary accident timeline, which they based on data (both video and audio) from a digital video recorder system onboard the boat. The agency, however, has been quick to clarify that information may be amended as the investigation continues, and that they have yet to validate the times they've published against local time. The NTSB also said that they are not at a point of determining a conclusive accident cause and that one should not be assumed from the released information.

In this NTSB July 26, 2018, photo, the SD card is shown from the digital video recorder system onboard the amphibious DUKW "Stretch Boat 7" that sank July 19 near Branson, Missouri.  (NTSB Photo)

Timeline Indicates Some Knowledge of Incoming Weather Before Ride the Ducks Tour Started 

The NTSB refers to the Duck Boat that sank as Stretch Boat 7, and the organization says that at approximately 6:27 p.m. two crewmembers boarded the vehicle. One was the captain, who operates the Duck Boat while on water, and the other was a driver, who operates the Duck Boat when on land. A minute later an unidentified individual steps onto the rear of the vehicle for a moment to tell the captain and the driver that they should do the water portion of the tour before the land portion (normally passengers are shown around the city of Branson before taking to the water of Table Top Lake). Another minute later, as 29 passengers board the Duck Boat, the captain speaks about looking at the weather radar before the tour.

Those two minutes may prove crucial to the investigation as investigators attempt to determine whether anyone at Ride the Ducks Branson, which is owned by Ripley Entertainment, knew of the oncoming storm front as the tour headed toward Table Top Lake.

A severe thunderstorm warning for southern Missouri was issued at 6:32 p.m. but the storm moved across surrounding areas throughout the day, which may indicate why the individual urged the water portion first and the captain referenced the weather, even though the official warning was not for another four to five minutes.

At 6:55 p.m. the Duck Boat entered Table Top Lake, approximately 23 minutes after the storm warning. Video from that moment shows relatively calm water. Whitecaps dot the waves and winds rose just five minutes later and approximately nine minutes after that the Duck Boat capsized.

All 31 onboard plunged into the now furious water. Only 14 survived. Others on the lake and nearby shores attempted to save victims, but 17 people died, some trying to save their loved ones.

Coast Guard Certificate Showed Duck Boat Was Not Allowed to Sail in Such High Winds

The question of whether the Duck Boat should have been on the water that day is not only about the discretion of the Ride the Ducks team, but about what the Coast Guard permitted the boat to do.

The vehicle's Coast Guard certificate, issued in February of 2017, prohibited it from operating on water when winds are in excess of 35 miles per hour and/or waves are taller than two feet. The investigations into the accident will explore at what point the winds—which eventually reached 63 miles per hour—increased and whether the Duck Boat crew continued to operate the vehicle after that happened.

The Coast Guard is giving the Missouri Duck Boat accident their highest level of investigation, the commandant-directed Marine Board of Investigation. It's a level of investigation rarely used, and this will be only the fourth time it's been enacted since 2010, when it was used to investigate the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In the investigation, the Coast Guard will use a five-person board of inquiry to determine whether there was criminal activity related to the incident and whether Coast Guard personnel contributed in some way.

Survivor Who Lost Nine of Her Family Says Life Jacket Use Was Discouraged on Ride the Ducks Tour 

Another are of investigation is why seventeen people drowned in a watercraft that had life jackets onboard and accessible. One part of that may be the Duck Boat's canopy, which can prevent passengers from escaping as the vehicle sinks, but it may not have been the only factor in the Missouri accident.

CNN quoted a source close to the investigation saying that not one of the 17 people who perished in the incident was wearing a lifejacket. That's a claim backed up by Tia Coleman, one of 11 family members on the Duck Boat.
Coleman lost her husband and her three children when the Duck Boat sank, as well as her sister-in-law, one of her nephews, and her mother- and father-in-law. Only she and a nephew survived from her family. Coleman said in interviews after the accident that they'd been made aware of the location of the lifejackets, but that the captain had said they wouldn't be needed.

"When that boat is found all those life jackets are going to be on there," Coleman said. "Nobody pulled them off [the storage area]."

Coleman believes that her husband was trying to save their children when he died and said that she was told he had the three deceased children with him when he was found. She also believes that had she been able to put on a life jacket she could have saved her children.

The NTSB timeline says that the captain of the Duck Boat completed a safety briefing at the beginning of the trip, during which he pointed out the location of the life jackets and demonstrated how to use them. The agency has not commented on whether audio recordings captured the captain saying the passengers would not need the life jackets. Another survivor from the accident corroborated Coleman's account.

Missouri Accident the Latest in the Dark History of Duck Boats 

Duck Boats, often thought of as a fun and unique way to see a city, have a dangerous record leading safety advocates to question the vehicles.

Just three years ago five college students died when a Duck Boat collided with a tour bus. The NTSB ultimately blamed the collision on the Duck Boat's faulty manufacturing and inadequate maintenance.

One of the most well-known Duck Boat accidents, however, occurred in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1999. Twenty-one people were on that Duck Boat when it sank, and only seven survived. The NTSB found that that Duck Boat had a loose rubber boot, causing it to take on water, and that it did not have reserve buoyancy to keep it afloat in such a situation. The Duck Boat's canopy was also considered a significant factor, as four victims were found trapped underneath it.

Most recently a Duck Boat collided with a passenger vehicle in Boston on August 2, 2018, just two weeks after the Missouri accident. The passenger vehicle's driver sustained minor injuries.