Duck boat sinks on Missouri lake during severe thunderstorm, 17 dead

Dan Robinson

Staff member
Jan 14, 2011
St. Louis
An amphibious Ride the Ducks ("duck boat") sank on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri during a severe thunderstorm on Thursday afternoon, killing at least 17 people:

Initial reports were of a capsizing, but cell phone video from a nearby boat shows that the duck boat was swamped by waves generated by the high winds on the lake. The boat quickly sank:

A severe thunderstorm warning was in effect for the area, and the area was outlooked by the SPC for the potential of severe thunderstorms with their 1630z update:

While the severe storm created the rough water conditions that led to the sinking, the storm itself did not appear remarkable (that is, it was a routine strong straight-line wind event commonly seen in the Midwest during the summer).

The NTSB has been aware of the vulnerability of duck boats to rapid sinking and their canopies propensity to trap occupants in such events. There are several locations in a duck boat's hull where driveshafts and maintenance access seals can break, rapidly flooding the hull. The "freeboard" of a duck boat is very low (only 8 to 12 inches above the water), meaning that rough water (waves or other boat wakes) can easily overtop the sides. The latter appears to be the cause of the Table Rock Lake accident.

An earlier duck boat sinking in Arkansas in 1999 was caused by a driveshaft seal in the hull breaking. 11 people were killed in that incident. The NTSB subsequently issued a report urging duck boat operators to implement passive safety features that would prevent sinking (such as flotation foam and watertight bulkheads).

NTSB report:
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Jul 16, 2013
Joplin, MO
I have a feeling these types of vehicles will be nixed after this accident. I wonder how long they delayed heading towards land? Seems it could have made a dash towards land anywhere.
After this, I'm sure the NTSB is going to come down extra hard on them. I know after the 1999 incident down in Arkansas one of the recommendations of the NTSB was for all Duck Rides to have the roof removed so that in the event of a sinking Duck the occupants wouldn't be trapped. The operator of the company ignored this recommendation .

I also read an article earlier that quoted a survivor of the Duck sinking yesterday and during the ordeal the captain advised passengers that there was no need to put on the life jackets and assured them they would make it to shore safely. By the time they realized this was not the case, it was too late and passengers were unable to get life vests on quick enough to escape the sinking vessel.

I'm usually against BS lawsuits against companies, but I suspect in the next few months we'll be hearing about lawsuits being filed against the operator and the company and I fully support that. There was negligence on all levels from the boat captain on up. They should be held accountable. This was a tragic event that didn't need to happen and could have been avoided and those 17 souls who perished would be alive today.
I would be surprised if the company is even in business after the dust settles.

17 people lost their lives and now their families, friends, and loved ones are left to cope with a situation that should have never happened. I dare to say that there is no excuse to not be weather-aware in this day and age. So many people have the ability to access an inconceivable amount of knowledge and information at any given time during the day through smart phones. If not that, there's computers, TV, radio, etc. for use in staying up-to-date on the weather. Hell, people even call NWS offices for forecasts. Was the business totally oblivious to the threat of storms that day, or just this particular storm? Or worse, did they know about it, but decide to continue operations due to the mindset of "That never happens here" or something along those lines? It was messaged clearly through SPC outlooks, watches, and NWS warnings, which were then disseminated through broadcasters on TV, probably over radio, and WEA on phones, so what happened? (EDIT: just realized WEA only occurs for tornado warnings.) The owner has been quoted as saying something along the lines of "The storm came out of nowhere", which is obviously incorrect. I watched a news bit this afternoon of a local witness being interviewed who said "Storms just appear and come out of nowhere without warning. It's the Ozarks, and that's just what happens". Those statements make me want to scream. Gone are the days of storms occurring without warning. I would think that nearly every, if not every, storm is "warned" in some way. There may be some that are severe and go without a formal warning, but they still occur in an area highlighted by an outlook, watch, or general area where storms were forecast.

All that being said, I can't imagine what it would have been like to have been on that boat. That has to be one of the worse ways to go. While the tour company will get all the blame, in situations like this, it is also up to the individuals to be aware of the situation and whether it is safe or not. There was a gentleman who had a ticket to ride a larger boat that was docked next to where the duck boat sank, but decided to get his ticket refunded due to concern over the approaching storm. I would take that as that the message of the approaching danger was getting through to people in that immediate area. Were the victims aware of the threat prior to getting on the doomed duck boat? It's just sad that a relatively quick, simple decision could have saved lives.
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Jul 5, 2009
Newtown, Pennsylvania
@Alex Elmore I share your general frustration with people not being more weather aware, but in this particular case I’m not sure even I would have thought there was a significant danger - I just don’t think I would have anticipated 5-foot waves on a lake resulting from a thunderstorm, or even if I did I probably wouldn’t be aware of the duck boat’s particular vulnerability to them as detailed in other posts above.

Also, I went on a duck boat tour in Boston once. There was at least a half hour, maybe more, of the tour on land before the amphibious vehicle entered the water. So isn’t it possible that people were not yet aware of the storm at the time the tour started? Doesn’t excuse the driver/captain, who could have checked conditions before actually entering the water, but as far as the passengers, I’m not sure any of them would have made the decision not to get on when the tour first started. Admittedly I don’t know all the details about the timing of the tour relative to the storm warning and all, but just a thought that it may not have been an easy decision to bail out of the tour as it appears with hindsight.
@JamesCaruso I agree that waves of that size are generally something you don't anticipate on a lake. And while I haven't been on one of these boats/tours before, it is my understanding that typically you are on land driving around for some time prior to getting into the water, as you mentioned. There is a chance that when departing, the operator/tour guides/participants did not perceive an immediate threat due to the storm not being right there in the immediate area. However, even if they left prior to the warning, the storm was still tracking toward that area and had been doing so for some time. I believe it was severe-warned prior to the warning that included the lake, but I would have to check to make sure that was the case.

During the heart of the warm season, air mass storms are fairly common in this area and other parts of the Midwest, Plains, and Southeast. These can develop rather quickly, possibly appearing to "come out of nowhere". I'll admit that these will catch people off guard, even though they were still likely forecast. This was not the case on July 19, though. In either scenario, there should always be a plan in place for any outdoor activity when there is a chance of storms in the forecast. Regarding watercraft and storms, I would think the threat of wind is second to lightning. Thunderstorms don't always produce strong winds, but by definition, they're always going to produce lightning. Even if this storm wasn't warned for wind, hail, or tornadoes, the threat of lightning should have been a good reason to stay off the water or not start the tour at all. To some degree, there may have been a plan for what to do when storms are in the area or pop-up, but it obviously wasn't good enough or enforced in this situation.
Jul 16, 2013
Joplin, MO
@Alex Elmore

Also, I went on a duck boat tour in Boston once. There was at least a half hour, maybe more, of the tour on land before the amphibious vehicle entered the water. So isn’t it possible that people were not yet aware of the storm at the time the tour started?
There's absolutely no way they weren't aware, well maybe the passengers weren't aware but the operator(s) of the Duck Ride should have been fully aware. The storm exited Kansas and came over Joplin, MO and even at that time had gusty 50MPH winds. The storm held together and was heading straight towards Branson/Table Rock Lake the entire time with warnings being issues all along. Not to mention the fact the area was under a severe thunderstorm watch for much of the day, so they should have already been on high alert as is.
The operators were indeed aware because they changed the order of the tour and did the water part first to try to beat the storm. Incredibly irresponsible when you are, in effect, in charge of people's lives.

As some of you know, I am a retired sociologist. The following is a post I made to the Weather and Society discussion group regarding sociological factors in the Ride the Ducks disaster. It occurs it might be of some interest to people here, too.

I apologize for the length of this post, but with the Ride the Ducks disaster we are not talking about something that lends itself to short, simple posts.

As more information emerges, it is becoming increasingly evident that social and organizational issues similar to those in past disasters could be at work. So I certainly hope that the NTSB, Coast Guard, and other organizations involved in the investigation include social scientists on their investigation teams. The quotes below from an online article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch suggest to me that forces were involved that were similar to those documented by sociologists in a number of other disasters, including the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters and the Valujet crash, among others. These include routinization of deviance (i.e. cutting corners and breaking or pushing safety rules repeatedly without bad consequences - until a disaster happens, often after many years); organizational pressure to meet deadlines, stay on schedule, etc.; efforts to cut costs; and placing such organizational goals ahead of safety. This sociological literature is scattered among a number of specialties in the field, including organizational sociology, criminology, and disaster sociology, among others, so it is not found exclusively among any specialty in sociology. But it is there, and I would like to see a social scientist knowledgeable about this literature involved in the investigation.

Here are some excerpts from the Post-Dispatch article that suggest these concerns to me:

"Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley told the Post-Dispatch that highway patrol investigators were looking into whether crimes had been committed.

"He said a major concern was that the boat’s route had been altered twice. Tours from the operator, Ripley Entertainment, typically start on land. This one had started on the water, he said, “potentially because they knew a storm was coming and they understood they needed to get out of the water quickly.” And it appeared the boat took a much shorter route on the lake than usual.

"Hawley said investigators wanted to know what the boat’s captain and driver knew about the weather forecast, when they decided to alter the boat’s route, and why. The captain was among the 14 survivors; the driver died.

"Hawley said investigators were seeking statements or video from the passengers aboard the Branson Belle who watched in horror as the duck boat struggled in the rough water.

"Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said it could take up to a year for the agency to compile and finalize a report on what had caused the boat to capsize and sink. The board said Saturday investigators would try to learn how information about the storm was conveyed to the crew.

"NTSB member Earl Weener said weather information provided to investigators showed that the wind was 2 mph short of the 74 mph considered to be hurricane force. He said investigators hoped a video recorder recovered from the boat would show what had happened.

"Coast Guard Capt. Scott Stoemer said the investigation will include determining if operators followed all safety regulations. An incident report from the Missouri Highway Patrol says none of the 31 people on board was wearing a life jacket.

"Stoemer said investigators hoped to raise the sunken boat early next week.

"Meanwhile, a private inspector in St. Louis said he told Ripley a year ago that two dozen of its boats had significant design flaws. He said he didn’t know whether the boats he inspected remained in Branson.

"Steve Paul, owner of Test Drive Technologies, said the boats had systems venting motor exhaust at the front below the water line. In rough conditions, he said, water could get into the motor and shut it off, which would also disable pumps to remove water from the hull.

"He also said the boats’ canopies made them hard to escape when they sank — a concern raised by regulators after a similar sinking in Arkansas killed 13 people in 1999.

"A representative for Ripley could not be reached on Saturday."

The full Post-Dispatch article:
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Reactions: Greg Campbell
Feb 21, 2012
Lawrence, KS
I was on vacation in Branson and told my family around 2 pm that it was unsafe to be on the lake, that a high wind event could come around 7:00 pm, so we should stay at the resort and grill. I got a severe thunderstorm warning around 6 and went to the deck to watch it unfold with my family and nephew. Initially it seemed like a fairly standard, high-wind event mentioned above with a couple 60+ gusts that I laughed about with my nephew. The laughs quickly subsided when we got initial reports of at least 6 dead and many missing, on a boat where my sister and family had rode last year. That made the deaths more real for me, thinking if this happened last year it could've been my family on the boat. Quickly the death toll went up to 17, and we visited Table Rock lake the next day as part of our vacation plans and saw the search and rescue boats. The thing to note here is the lead time was substantial and I can't recall an event that was more obvious almost 5 hours out. You had a swath of storms moving southeast of KC producing severe winds all day. Below is a screenshot of the velocities as it approached Branson. Note the severe warnings well ahead of the storm.
. Screenshot_20180719-185652_RadarScope (1).jpg
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Reactions: MClarkson
Sep 25, 2006
Denver, CO
Surely they had a "pre-flight" checklist to run though before the captain gives the green light to enter the water. Like if the engine is overheating we don't proceed. If there wasn't one for "we're in a severe thunderstorm polygon" or the captain chose or was told to ignore it that's negligent imo. The fact that two boats entered the water at around the same time has me suspecting it was more of a systemic issue than one captain's call (it always is with big disasters like this).
The article linked below says it all (almost). The boat entered the water at 6:55 p.m. What the article does not mention is that the severe thunderstorm warning for that area was issued at 6:32 p.m. - more than 20 minutes before the boat entered the water. And the warning specifically mentioned both Branson and Table Rock Lake as being in the warned area. Also, the boat's bilge alarm first sounded at least four minutes before the boat sank - time to have the passengers put on life jackets. If that had been done, the side curtains removed, and people had been told to jump over with their life jackets on, I believe the death toll would have been less. It was right by the Branson Belle showboat and people likely would have been quickly rescued. But the death toll would have been zero if the severe thunderstorm warning had been heeded and the boat never had gone in the water.