Branson Duck Boat Tragedy

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Bill N

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With regards to the Branson Duck boat tragedy on Thursday night, my wife and I are pretty shaken.  We live nearby and make frequent trips to Branson to visit our son who works in one of the theaters and also to camp in our motorhome.  We were last there over the July 4th holiday.

We have ridden the ducks several times, mostly when kids and grandkids are visiting.  We have never seen them as being dangerous and it is my opinion that this tragedy was caused by a very sudden and extremely rare storm that consisted of a leading edge of very high winds.  It hit our house about 15 minutes before it hit Branson and it was a total surprise to see such high winds and no rain (we never got any rain).  I believe that the duck boats had either just entered the water when the wind came up or were already well out on their route and were returning.  In any case, it was truly a freak of nature that caught them in that position.  It was the last trip of the day and usually of the one hour and 20 minute trip, only about 30 minutes are spent in the lake.  The rest is driving to the lake and touring a military outdoor museum set up to be driven through.

A new company bought the Duck boats in December.  They were previously owned by the same owners of Silver Dollar City.  They have been running in Branson for over 40 years with NO accidents.  You will read in the national papers about all of their accidents elsewhere including road crashes which have nothing to do with their type of vehicle - just vehicle accidents.  We actually tried to book a ride on the duck boats during our July  4 camping visit but they were no openings for two hours plus the new company had raised the price significantly - from about $18 to $25 which made it a bit more than we thought it would be worth.

What do I think will happen?  The NTSB and the Coast Guard are conducting the investigation.  The duck is till in 80 feet of water on it's wheels and will be brought out next week.  I think the cause was the freak storm and very high winds creating high wave action - the ducks ride pretty low in the water.  The continual bouncing in the waves caused the vehicle to intake water enough to sink it.  Survivors have not yet commented about whether the Captain advised donning life preservers.  One of the survivors said the captain said they would not be required but that is a standard portion of the briefing before departing for the tour.  Critical will be if the Captain ever advised putting on life preservers when they encountered the high winds.  To put it bluntly, this company will be put out of business - at least temporarily - until changes are made.  If they come back, passengers will wear a version of the less bulky life preservers as a matter of choice but they will be provided and not just stored up above.  One bad feature of the current system is that while stored above the passengers, the childrens preservers were all stored above and towards the back end of the boat instead of being spread throughout.  Also, flotation devices will be added to the duck itself as well as the seats. JMHO

Bill
 

Gary RV_Wizard

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We've camped near Branson on Table Rock Lake and I don't think nasty storms are all that rare there. We've seen them pop up in our few visits there and they move in fast.  It's a huge lake, so the winds and waves can get severe.  Clearly this was a powerful storm even though localized (what they call a single-cell storm) and came up without warning. The witnesses all seem to agree on that.  We can't always be prepared for every extreme eventuality, though I'm sure that those with 20/20 hindsight will offer plenty of "shoulda-woulda-coulda" advice.  I would hate to see the tour boat company go out of business, though that seems a likely result.  The tour boat rides are very popular, but they will disappear quickly if safety regs got too burdensome/expensive by trying to prevent every conceivable accident.  The lines between reasonable precautions and negligence are often blurry and surely not universally agreed upon.
 
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They don't have life jacket requirements on them ?  I thought all boats were required.
 

Rene T

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There were life jackets on board. Just last night I was talking to my wife about this tragedy. I told her I would have had her put on a life jacket as well as myself and we would have jumped off the boat as it was just starting taking on water. At least we could have made it to shore which was close by.
 

SargeW

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Rene T said:
There were life jackets on board. Just last night I was talking to my wife about this tragedy. I told her I would have had her put on a life jacket as well as myself and we would have jumped off the boat as it was just starting taking on water. At least we could have made it to shore which was close by.

I concur Rene. I was caught in that very situation about 20 years ago on Lake Havasu in our private 18' tri-hull ski boat. Me, Diane, and the two boys that were about 9 and 12 at the time. There was a very "eerie" calm before the storm hit. We were out in the middle of the lake all the way down by Parker. Huge wave crashing over the boat. Nothing around us but rock faces on shore. First thing when it got a bit rough was to put everyone in a vest or ski jacket, even the dog. 

My brand new bilge pump was not working (broken wire) and we were taking on a lot of water. We were still making headway with the boat at about a 45 degree angle when I  was about to have everyone abandon ship. Just then a tiny cove appeared on shore and I beached it. I figured it was better to jump in and get away from the boat rather than be hit by it flipping over.  The life vests would have saved the day.
 

Bill N

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Gary RV_Wizard said:
We've camped near Branson on Table Rock Lake and I don't think nasty storms are all that rare there. We've seen them pop up in our few visits there and they move in fast.  It's a huge lake, so the winds and waves can get severe.  Clearly this was a powerful storm even though localized (what they call a single-cell storm) and came up without warning. The witnesses all seem to agree on that.  We can't always be prepared for every extreme eventuality, though I'm sure that those with 20/20 hindsight will offer plenty of "shoulda-woulda-coulda" advice.  I would hate to see the tour boat company go out of business, though that seems a likely result.  The tour boat rides are very popular, but they will disappear quickly if safety regs got too burdensome/expensive by trying to prevent every conceivable accident.  The lines between reasonable precautions and negligence are often blurry and surely not universally agreed upon.

The rarity of this storm Gary was that there was a front of nothing but wind that preceded the rain by about 20 miles.  One of the resort owners there said his docks were receiving 80 mph winds and 5 foot waves.  I know when it hit our house which is located in a subdivision we were really amazed at how quick all the patio furniture decided to move from the patio to the fence and how many shingles were blowing off a neighbors house who has refused to reroof for several years.  I think the biggest problem to come in the investigation will be if the Captain (who is alive) refused to let anybody put on a life preserver or if he told them they were not needed at the time the boat was experiencing difficulties.  If this company does resume business I think there will be some life preserver rules changes such as all children MUST wear them and adults must carry them as a minimum.  I know they will try to mandate removal of the canopies too but that will be difficult to do without ruining business as riding in the sun or rain or cold (they operate in early spring and late fall) would sure not encourage business.

But, with me carrying a portable oxygen tank and the wife a poor swimmer, I would done as you said - reached up and put on life jackets when it became obvious the weather was getting severe.  I did not mention it but it is very fortunate they were near the Showboat Branson Belle as they got a lot of help from that crew too.

Bill
 

scottydl

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Extremely tragic. I cannot understand why life jackets were not absolute standard equipment, as in "the boat doesn't move until everyone is wearing them." Unexpected storm or not. Apparently these particular boats have an overall good safety record, but there are several hundred likely-preventable recreational boat deaths every year... 80% of those are drownings and 83% of those who drowned were not wearing life jackets (source here). My wife and I read about similar stats when we started kayaking last year, and regardless of calm/rough water we (and our kids) decided we would always be wearing jackets before pushing off. It just seems unwise not to, with so many factors beyond our control.
 

Gary RV_Wizard

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It's simple enough, Scotty: Because the customers would grumble too much and the tragedies like this one are rare.  People don't wear seat belts on buses or parachutes on planes either.  Few people worry until something like this happens, and those that do worry mostly won't even go on the boat anyway.

It will be interesting to learn the timeline of events, but the reports suggest that the wind & waves came up so fast that they were being swamped by the time it became apparent that this was no common squall. That hindsight I mentioned earlier makes it obvious they should have donned vests at the first sign of waves, but it probably wasn't so obvious to those on the scene.
 
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Didn't I see an old pacific island WW2 film about the DYKW boats getting swamped easily on landings..(and they were siting 'ducks' for enemy machine gunners).

Sadly,  there are news rumors... (who knows if they're true or not)  about some survivors saying the tour guide told them there was no need to put life-jackets on. 
 

Patnsuzanne

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We took a Duck tour in Chattanooga just last month and were out on the river when a large thunderstorm was moving in over the city from the south.  Having some experience in small craft in rough weather I was already figuring the distance to shore and the boat operator was also keeping us fairly close in. Fortunately, we made it back to the landing without incident, but I was struck by a picture of one of the boats in Branson trying to make their way through the storm, that was taken from a nearby dock.  It appeared that the sides were enclosed from the gunnels to the overhead with windows of either plastic or plexiglass.  The ducks we rode in Chattanooga were open to the overheads and thus would have been much easier to get out of in the event of a swamping or capsize. I have to wonder how many of those poor folks just couldn?t make their way out of congested exits when the vessel went under. Unlike a conventional boat there didn?t seem to be any additional flotation in a duck (or at least the one we were on) and it probably went down like the proverbial stone.  A tragedy any way you look at it.
 

Isaac-1

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My wife and I did a Duck boat tour in Hot Springs last year, we have reservations in Branson in a couple of weeks.  I also have a fair amount of experience in and on the water, I had a 28 ft sailboat here on the gulf coast, and worked as a scuba instructor for a few years back when I was in my 20's.  I have bobbed around in 6+ ft seas in nothing but a bathing suit, mask, snorkel and fins, though that was a few decades ago, and have done it in 4+ ft seas in just a bathing suit.  I have also been sucked towards the bottom more than once, thankfully always with scuba gear on.  The most memorable time, was while getting back onto a dive boat off the coast of Honduras in 5-6 ft seas, when suddenly I found the dive ladder I was climbing was no longer attached to the dive boat.

From all this I have learned that when things made from heavy wood and metal sink, they sink fast, in the case of the above mentioned swing down wooden? dive ladder, by the time I realized that the last big splash of a wave had detached it from the boat the ladder was heading toward the bottom I was at almost 20 ft below the surface and going down fast.

So while tragic, it should not be surprising the 1/3 to 1/2 of the people on a typical Duck boat tour would not survive an incident like this.  I am not sure if I would, in tight quarters, with lots of people who were likely not strong swimmers pulling the others down.  You put a weak swimmer in 3-4 ft seas and expect them to survive for more than 5 minutes, and you have a dice roll chance of them surviving, add 25-30 panicked people in close proximity to the mix, many without life vests and you turn it into a coin toss.  As I write this I find myself asking if I were there, would I want to put on a life vest and bob in the water so that people without them could try to climb up on me, or would I jump in and try to swim away.  I think my answer would be split the difference, grab a life vest, hold onto it, and keep it between me and the drowning people.

Sure there is the noble thought of trying to save others, but in this situation the weak swimmers would likely overwhelm the experienced would be rescuers.

p.s. on the topic of forcing passengers to wear life vests, I suspect in the long run we would see more frail passengers dying from becoming overheated than die in these occasional sinkings.  Remember these Duck boat operations run in probably a dozen cities around the US, probably a dozen or more tours per day in tourist season, in  a year assuming a 100 day tourist season, you are looking at around 15,000 passengers per year, and a major accident about once ever 10 years.  That is a lot of potential heat related injuries wearing a hot life vest in the summer.
 

John From Detroit

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sightseers said:
They don't have life jacket requirements on them ?  I thought all boats were required.

Just googled it and an article in the Washington Post came up.

THey did have life jackets it appears but the passengers were told to remain seated and NOT put them on as they would not be needed... Now that... Sounds actionable. Since they clearly WERE needed. From what I read many mistakes were made by the boat operators and crew.
 

Bill N

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John From Detroit said:
Just googled it and an article in the Washington Post came up.

THey did have life jackets it appears but the passengers were told to remain seated and NOT put them on as they would not be needed... Now that... Sounds actionable. Since they clearly WERE needed. From what I read many mistakes were made by the boat operators and crew.

Hold your thoughts until after the facts come out in the investigation John.  The passengers are given a briefing before the trip that includes the location of the life preservers and the words that you won't be needing them based on 40 years of accident free operation.  They probably should delete that last part.  There is definitely blame to be had but so much of what I am reading is just pure speculation of people who have no idea of what they are talking about.  The company will no doubt be found to blame but a lot of what is being published and put out on social media is just pure BS.  Survivors are saying that they entered the water with calm surface and no winds.  They knew a storm was coming but the radar showed it to be quite a distance away; however, what was not planned was the high winds well in advance of the actual storm.  Anyway, I should not be speculating either but in this day and age of social media there is so much misinformation spread that a lot of fake facts are put out.  One supposed boat captain of x years commented from a 15 second video that the boat should have turned right and beached itself instead of trying to make it back to it's pier.  There is not a pier - only an exit ramp.  Turning right would have put it broadside to the waves and resulted in immediate sinking.  The boat was about 150 feet from the exit ramp according to witnesses on the Showboat Branson Belle.  Close  - oh so close.

Bill
 

Bill N

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Isaac-1 said:
p.s. on the topic of forcing passengers to wear life vests, I suspect in the long run we would see more frail passengers dying from becoming overheated than die in these occasional sinkings.  Remember these Duck boat operations run in probably a dozen cities around the US, probably a dozen or more tours per day in tourist season, in  a year assuming a 100 day tourist season, you are looking at around 15,000 passengers per year, and a major accident about once ever 10 years.  That is a lot of potential heat related injuries wearing a hot life vest in the summer.

Good post Issac and spot on about the accidents.  Can safety be improved?  You bet but while the news cites all the highway accidents of these vehicles, their water performance has been pretty good for several years.  One big accident in 1999 in Hot Springs.  But in Branson they have been running for over 40 years with no accidents.  I can't add how many people would have ridden them in that time.  Another thing I recall from my rides in Branson are that most of these are not original duck boats but replicas built since for the purpose of commercial use.  I guess my family feels affected a lot because of our closeness to Branson and the past experience on the ducks.  I think the Herschend family - former owners - sold the Ride The Ducks in December 2017 because they were just tired of all the negative publicity from the vehicle accidents on dry land and several water accidents.  They also own Silver Dollar City in Branson so money is not short.....lol

Bill
 

scottydl

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Isaac-1 said:
That is a lot of potential heat related injuries wearing a hot life vest in the summer.

I'd like to know if there are any statistics to support this risk. Perhaps there are but it seems rather unlikely, similar to old refusals to wear a seatbelt in a car so you're not "trapped" if the vehicle catches fire or becomes submerged upside down in water... both extremely unlikely and essentially abandoned now as justifiable excuses, since seatbelt usage prevents the much more common causes of death in auto crashes (ejections and blunt force trauma). It seems that lifesaving potential of a vest would far outweigh the discomfort of wearing it, or risk of heat-related injuries that could be prevented with proper hydration and lightweight clothing.
 

Bill N

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NY_Dutch said:
A life vest doesn't help if you can't get out of the cabin...
Of all the various stories on this event Dutch I saw one today that said the Captain did release the cap just before or as it was going down.  Way too late and I didn't even know that they had that capability.  Unfortunately the Captain is one of the dead so he can ever explain his actions.  Initially they said it was the driver that died but later stories say it was the captain and that the driver survived.  His story should be interesting but I am sure it is being told to investigators only for the time being.

Bill
 

Isaac-1

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scottydl said:
I'd like to know if there are any statistics to support this risk. Perhaps there are but it seems rather unlikely, similar to old refusals to wear a seatbelt in a car so you're not "trapped" if the vehicle catches fire or becomes submerged upside down in water... both extremely unlikely and essentially abandoned now as justifiable excuses, since seatbelt usage prevents the much more common causes of death in auto crashes (ejections and blunt force trauma). It seems that lifesaving potential of a vest would far outweigh the discomfort of wearing it, or risk of heat-related injuries that could be prevented with proper hydration and lightweight clothing.

I don't know of any formal studies, however in my experience around water on small boats on the gulf coast I have seen many people become overheated while wearing life vests.  Hydration and lightweight clothing are of very limited help on days like today in the south with afternoon highs of nearly 100 degrees and humidity approaching 80%, the body simply can not dissipate heat no matter how much one sweats.
 

NY_Dutch

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Bill N said:
Of all the various stories on this event Dutch I saw one today that said the Captain did release the cap just before or as it was going down.  Way too late and I didn't even know that they had that capability.  Unfortunately the Captain is one of the dead so he can ever explain his actions.  Initially they said it was the driver that died but later stories say it was the captain and that the driver survived.  His story should be interesting but I am sure it is being told to investigators only for the time being.

Bill

Yep, as I posted earlier in the thread: "The captain did release the canopy as the vessel was sinking according to some reports, but apparently it was too little too late for too many people."
 

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