BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — More than half of the 17 people killed when a tourist boat sank on a Branson lake were members of the same Indiana family, and they likely would not have been on the ill-fated trip but for a ticket mix-up.
Tracy Beck, of Kansas City, Missouri, said she recalled the family members waiting in line. After they stopped for a picture, she said, a ticket taker realized they should have boarded at a different location and reassigned them.
Others who died in the accident at Table Rock Lake included a Missouri couple who had recently celebrated a birthday, a longtime Rhode Island pastor who was operating the boat and an Indiana father and son.
The Stone County Sheriff’s Department identified the Indiana family members as 45-year-old Angela Coleman, 1-year-old Arya Coleman, 69-year-old Belinda Coleman, 76-year-old Ervin Coleman, 7-year-old Evan Coleman, 40-year-old Glenn Coleman, 70-year-old Horace Coleman, 2-year-old Maxwell Coleman, and 9-year-old Reece Coleman.
A relative of the family, Kim Thomas Sr., said they’re taking the news hard.
“The kids are doing better than we are. We have to live in this world; they have gone to the other side,” said Thomas, 51, of Indianapolis, whose cousin, Tia Coleman, was one of two members of the family to survive the accident at Table Rock Lake near Branson.
Others who died were 69-year-old William Asher, 68-year-old Rosemarie Hamann, 63-year-old Janice Bright, 65-year-old William Bright, and the crew member operating the boat, 73-year-old Bob Williams, all from Missouri. Also killed were 64-year-old Leslie Dennison of Illinois, and 53-year-old Steve Smith and his son, 15-year-old Lance Smith, both from Arkansas.
State and federal investigators were trying to determine what went sent the vessel known as a duck boat to its demise in what was the deadliest accident of its kind in early two decades. An initial assessment blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength, but it wasn’t clear why the amphibious vehicle even ventured out into the water.
The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm watch for the area Thursday, saying conditions were ripe for winds of 70 mph (113 kph). It followed up at 6:32 p.m. with a severe thunderstorm warning for three counties that included Branson and the lake. The warning mentioned both locations. The boat went down about 40 minutes later, shortly after 7 p.m.
“When we issue a warning, it means take action,” meteorologist Kelsey Angle said.
Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said the company was assisting authorities with their investigation. She said this was the company’s only accident in more than 40 years of operation.
Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt. The captain survived, authorities said.
Among the injured was 14-year-old Loren Smith of Osceola, Arkansas. Her father, retired math teacher Steve Smith, and her brother died in the accident. Loren suffered a concussion.
“It’s a hard thing,” Steve Smith’s father, Carroll Smith, said of losing his only child and his only grandson. “It’s a very difficult day.”
Brayden Malaske, of Harrah, Oklahoma, boarded a replica 19th-century paddle-wheeler known as the Branson Belle on the same lake just before the storm hit.
At the time, he said, the water seemed calm, and no one was worried about the weather.
“But it suddenly got very dark,” he recalled.
In a short video taken by Malaske from the deck of the Belle, the duck boat can be seen wallowing through the choppy, wind-whipped lake, with water only inches from its windows. Dark, rolling waves crash over its front end. The footage ends before the boat capsizes.
Later, people on Malaske’s boat saw a duck boat passenger “hanging on for dear life” to the paddle wheel of the Belle, he said.
Branson Mayor Karen Best said Williams, the boat driver, was known by many as “Captain Bob” and was a “great ambassador” for the city. “He was at every event. He knew everyone. He was always promoting Branson,” Best said.
Williams’ family in Rhode Island, where he’d lived for decades before retiring to Branson, remembered him as a deeply religious man who founded a local church.
“Pastor Bob was a prince of a man, loving, kind, and generous, whose loss to our family is incalculable,” said Williams’ son-in-law, Bishop Jeffery Williams, who now leads King’s Cathedral in Providence.
“I truly believe in my heart that he died trying to save those people,” one of Williams’ neighbors, Charlie ‘Ray’ Revill, said at a vigil Friday night. “Bob Williams was the finest man I’ve ever known.”
Hamann and Asher, a St. Louis-area couple killed in the accident, had been celebrating Hamman’s birthday earlier in the week. Her final Facebook photo was a selfie with Asher. He’s sticking his tongue out, and she’s smiling.
Friend Russ McKay said he talked to Hamann the day before the accident to say they had just gone on a paddle boat and were planning to go again. He doesn’t know why they chose the duck boat instead.
“I can only imagine what they were going through. They were so in love. It’s just heartbreaking,” McKay said.
A survivor from the family who lost nine relatives said the captain told passengers not to bother grabbing life jackets.
Tia Coleman told Indianapolis television station WXIN that she and a nephew were the only survivors among 11 relatives aboard the boat. She said she lost all her children, but she did not say how many.
Coleman said the captain told passengers that they would not need life jackets. By the time of the accident, “it was too late.”
An email message seeking comment from Ripley Entertainment about Coleman’s comment was not immediately returned.
Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.
Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus. Thirteen people died in 1999 when a boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“Duck boats are death traps,” said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. “They’re not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat.”
Safety advocates have sought improvements and complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements.
The boats were originally designed for the military, specifically to transport troops and supplies in World War II. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.
The Ride the Ducks tour begins in downtown Branson, where the vehicles take passengers on a tour while the captain cracks jokes and points out landmarks. Eventually, the boats pull up to the lake and slowly enter the water with a small splash.
After a few minutes on the water, the vehicles return to land and to their home base, which features a store selling candy and souvenirs.
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