Authorities say 11 are now confirmed dead after a duck boat carrying about 31 passengers capsized and sank Thursday on Table Rock Lake near the tourist town of Branson, Missouri, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader told reporters late Thursday night.
An additional seven people have been transported to the hospital, Rader said. Of those people, only one sustained serious injuries, he said. Dive teams were dispatched to search for survivors, but operations are “wrapping up” for the night and will continue in the morning, he said late Thursday.
Five people may be still missing, Rader said. Some of the dead passengers were children.
“This is going to be all night into tomorrow,” he said, “we’re still going to be working on this.”
National Transportation Safety Board investigators are expected to arrive Friday to help determine the cause of the tragedy.
Video taken of the boat just before the incident showed it churning up and down through choppy waves, with water spraying in every direction. This was a case where there were strong winds ahead of the heavy rain.
“The winds were behind what is called a ‘gust front,'” reported weather blogger meteorologist Mike Smith. “There were also intense winds with the heavy rain when it arrived which would have decreased visibility to very low values.” Gusts of up to 70 or 80 mph were reported around the time of the sinking, he wrote.
Rader said he believed the boat capsized and sank due to the intense winds and thunderstorms. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the area at around 4:30 p.m. local time.
According to the Southern Stone County Fire Protection District, multiple agencies responded to the scene of a “mass casualty incident” involving a “tourist type boat,” shortly after 7 p.m. local time.
At 7:16 p.m., a call to Taney County Public Safety dispatch asked for a “water rescue” just north of the site of the Showboat Branson Belle, on the lake’s shore near Table Rock State Park.
“Will be a duck that has capsized. We have approximately 30 individuals in the water,” the voice over the dispatch said, according to a recording captured on Broadcastify.com. “It’s pretty intense here,” another voice said later.
At 7:27 p.m., a voice said several people had already “been picked up.”
“We have injuries, a possible CPR in progress. There’s a couple of pontoons to get people out of the water . . .”
“Some people are already on land,” another caller said later. “We do definitely need an ambulance there.”
One responder asked if those at the scene of the victims could push back bystanders. “We have people out here taking pictures.”
Just before 7:45 p.m., another member of the response team said they had “at least six or seven fatalities.”
“We’re trying to dive for more missing people,” he said. “We’re treating some, obviously the injured ones.”
Rader told reporters he did not know how deep the water was where the boat sank. He said he believed the deaths to be caused by drowning.
A different caller over the Taney County Public Safety dispatch said that two Jet Skis had also capsized elsewhere on the lake, but that all of the people riding them were safe on shore.
“This is a very tough night for us. It’s going to be a long night for a lot of people,” Melody Pettit, communications manager for the city of Branson, said during a press briefing outside city hall. “It’s gut-wrenching.”
Families of victims were welcomed to gather inside the city hall overnight. The city set up a command post inside, offering chaplains, psychologists and Red Cross services to families, Pettit said.
Rachel Zerby, who was camping along the lake near where the duck boat capsized, told The Washington Post she saw duck boats out on the water when the storm suddenly hit.
“We have a clear line of sight to both across the water,” Zerby said. “I noticed most of the boats had left the water, but there were still at least two or maybe three ducks still near the Belle.”
The duck boat that sank was one of two still operating during the storm, Rader said. The boats were returning to shore when the incident happened, he said. Some of those on the capsized boat were able to swim to shore, the Kansas City Star reported.
Originally created by the U.S. Army for use in World War II, DUKWs (called “ducks”) were amphibious trucks shaped like boats that ferried ammunition, supplies and equipment from offshore ships to troops stationed on beaches. In later years, they were modified for recreation and riding in duck boats has become a highly popular tourist activity.
The duck boat that capsized was owned by Ride the Ducks Branson, a tourism company that takes people on tours of the Ozarks through land and water using the amphibious vehicles. Ride the Ducks is a national company that has multiple locations across the U.S., including Guam. The Branson operation was purchased last year by Ripley Entertainment, a company spokesperson Suzanne Smagala-Potts told The Washington Post.
Duck boats have had a history of fatal accidents both in the water and on land.
In what may be the most deadly incident, 13 people died in 1999 after a duck boat suddenly started taking on water while on a tour of Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
In 2015, a Ride the Ducks boat crashed into a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle and four college students were killed. Nearly 50 people were injured.
However, Smagala-Potts said this is the first time there has ever been an accident involving the duck boats in Branson. The company has been operating in the city for 40 years and is “a staple of Branson,” Smagala-Potts said.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred this evening at Ride The Ducks Branson,” she said. “This incident has deeply affected all of us. We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved and the authorities as they continue with the search and rescue.”
Located about 20 minutes from Branson, Table Rock Lake is a popular destination for “watercraft aficionados,” according to its website. The lake stretches across 45,000 surface acres and 800 miles of shoreline.
Roger Braillier, who is a duck boat captain for the same company, told The Washington Post that “hearts all hurt for all involved.”
“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the captain did his best,” Braillier said. “All of our hearts are completely broken right now.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Allyson Chiu, Samantha Schmidt