Coast Guard partially at fault for deadly 2018 duck boat disaster, investigation finds

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The Coast Guard oversees the removal of Stretch Duck 7 from Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, July 23, 2018

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that lives could have been saved when a duck boat capsized in a thunderstorm on Table Rock Lake if the U.S. Coast Guard had followed safety recommendations from 18 years ago.

NTSB investigators discussed with board members their nearly two-year investigation into a 2018 disaster near Branson when a Ride the Ducks tour vessel sank, killing 17 of the 31 people on board.

The sightseeing tour started on Table Rock Lake just ahead of the arrival of a severe thunderstorm on July 19, 2018. The thunderstorm barreled down on the lake with winds exceeding 70 miles per hour, more than twice what the duck boat was supposed to be able to handle.

The NTSB in 2002 issued safety recommendations to the U.S. Coast Guard for duck boats — World War II-era vehicles that can travel on land and on water — that included removing overhead canopies and increasing reserve buoyancy on the boats. Those recommendations came after a duck boat called Miss Majestic sank on a lake in Arkansas in 1999, killing 13 people.

The Coast Guard did not adopt those recommendations, the NTSB said.

“Staff believes (Coast Guard regulation) NVIC 101 did not effectively address NTSB’s 2002 recommending the removal of … fixed canopies and likely increased the number of fatalities,” said Michael Karr, who investigates survival factors for the NTSB, during a video conference with NTSB board members Tuesday morning.

“There were many similarities between that sinking and the one that we are considering today,” said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt. “The NTSB issued several recommendations in connection to the sinking of the Miss Majestic that were never acceptably acted upon.”

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Stretch Duck 7 is loaded onto a flatbed trailer to be transported to a secure facility after being raised from Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, July 23, 2018

Improper compartmentalization

The U.S. Coast Guard just last week issued a recommendation to duck boat owners that they remove canopies and side curtains to help passengers escape in the case of an emergency. The recommendation is voluntary on the part of the duck boat owners.

The NTSB investigation also found that Stretch Duck 7, the name of the boat that sank in 2018, had a spring-loaded forward hatch, which allowed water to rapidly enter the engine compartment of the boat as its captain tried to steer the boat to the lake’s exit ramp.

The NTSB investigators said Stretch Duck 7 lacked proper compartmentalization that would have kept the flooding from moving to the rest of the boat. That caused water to flood the rest of the boat faster than a bilge pump could push water out of the vessel, leading to a rapid sinking of Stretch Duck 7.

By comparison, Stretch Duck 54, another Ride the Ducks boat that was out on the water when the storm arrived at Table Rock Lake but made it safely to the exist ramp, was newer, had a stronger front hatch that kept water out of the engine compartment and had better reserve buoyancy.

Stretch Duck 7 also had its side curtains down when the storm arrived, which along with the overhead canopy blocked passengers from escaping Stretch Duck 7 as it sank.

The captain of Stretch Duck 7, Kenneth Scott McKee, was able to release the side curtain on the left side of the boat but it sank so quickly that he was unable to release the right-side curtain to allow passengers on that side a quick exit.

A federal grand jury indicted McKee, 51, on charges of misconduct and negligence for his handling of Stretch Duck 7.

Ride the Ducks in Branson was operated by Ripley Entertainment. Several lawsuits have been filed against Ripley Entertainment; most have settled on confidential terms.

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.