(Reuters) - Nine members of the same family were among 17 people killed when a “duck boat” sank during a storm on Thursday on a Missouri lake in one of the deadliest U.S. tourist tragedies in years.
The World War Two-style amphibious vehicle was carrying 31 passengers including children when the sudden “microburst” storm hit Table Rock Lake outside Branson, with waves slowly swamping the vehicle before it sank.
More than three dozen people have died in incidents involving duck boats on land and water in the United States over the past two decades.
Tia Coleman said she and her nephew were the only survivors from 11 members of their family who went on the “Ride The Ducks” tour.
"I lost all my children, I lost my husband," Coleman told Indianapolis television channel Fox 59 from her hospital bed in Branson. "I'm OK, but this is really hard, just really hard." bit.ly/2LB7QwJ
She said the captain of the boat told them when they were in the lake not to put their life jackets on, an action she believed cost lives. The crew was warned to get in and out of the lake quickly as a storm was approaching, she said.
The 17 victims were aged between 1 and 70 and came from six U.S. states, authorities said. The included Arkansas residents Steve Smith and his son Lance, their church newspaper said. Smith’s daughter Loren survived. His wife opted not go on the tour, the paper said.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson said seven of the 14 survivors were injured, one seriously.
“Emergency responders and civilian rescuers helped avert an even worse tragedy as people rushed to help in extremely dangerous conditions,” Parson said in a statement.
The tragedy unfolded at around 7 p.m. (0000 GMT) on Thursday when thunderstorms rolled over the lake, churning the water into white-capped waves. Two duck vehicles were on the lake and headed back to shore but only one made it. The driver of the duck that sank was among those killed, officials said.
Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader told reporters that the boat’s captain survived.
“From what I understand there was life jackets in the duck,” Rader said, but he declined to say if passengers were wearing them.
The National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard were investigating, officials said.
Jim Pattison, president of Ripley Entertainment, which owns the Branson “Ride The Ducks” tour company, said the strength of the storm was unexpected, but the duck boat should not have been in the lake.
“It shouldn’t have been in the water if what happened, happened,” Pattison told the CBS This Morning show.
Pat Cox, owner of a marina about a half mile from where the vessel went down, sent five boats and some 20 people to the rescue, most between the ages of 18 and 20.
“These people showed an amazing strength maybe that we don’t always give them credit for,” Cox said by telephone. “They had it and they took action. And they were good Samaritans.”
The first boat’s crew was able to pull two people from the waves, Cox said. “It was all hands on deck. We did everything we could.”
Branson is a family-friendly tourist destination with attractions like “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” dinner theater, the Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai and a Titanic museum with a model of the sunken vessel’s front half.
Rick Kettles, owner of the Lakeside Resort General Store and Restaurant, said he had never before seen such conditions on the lake, which is a 67-square-mile (174 sq km) reservoir on the White River.
“I am 54 and I started coming here when I was 6 or 7 years old. I have been on my lake most of my life and I have never seen it like this,” Kettles said. “I am trying to figure out why the boats were out there. I don’t get it, having a captain’s license myself.”
A microburst is a severe, localized wind gust, blasting down from a thunderstorm, typically covering an area less than 2.5 miles (4 km) in diameter and lasting less than five minutes.
Duck vehicles, modeled on landing craft that were used in the D-Day invasion of World War Two, are used on sightseeing tours around the world.
The company that builds ducks, Ride the Ducks International LLC, agreed in 2016 to pay a $1 million fine after one of the vehicles collided with a bus in Seattle, killing five international students.
Thirteen people died in 1999 when the duck boat in which they were riding sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas. Afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board warned that the boats’ canopy roofs presented a hazard, making it difficult for people, even those wearing life jackets, to escape if one of the vessels capsized.
Two tourists died in Philadelphia in 2010 when the duck boat they were in was struck by a tugboat on the Delaware River.
Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Gina Cherelus in New York and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Clarence Fernandez