The two biggest mass casualties on water involving duck boats in the last 20 years featured crafts with overhead roof canopies that a federal agency said posed a drowning risk to passengers trying to escape from a sinking vessel.
Thursday’s sinking of a duck boat on choppy waters at Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri that killed 17 passengers bears similarities to a 1999 lake disaster in Arkansas.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Tri-City Herald
In 1999, the Miss Majestic duck boat rapidly sank to the bottom of Lake Hamilton in Arkansas, drowning 13 of its 21 passengers.
When investigators recovered the boat, they found seven dead passengers still inside — four of them pinned against the underside of the canopy, which made the prospects for an escape unlikely.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the Arkansas incident and arrived at this conclusion: “Contributing to the high loss of life was a continuous canopy roof that entrapped passengers within the sinking vehicle.”
A witness video of Thursday’s accident shows a Ride the Ducks boat, covered with an overhead roof, proving no match against 3-foot waves and 60 mile-per-hour winds before sinking. The boat takes on the long and narrow shape of a bus with a canopy that offers seemingly little room for passengers to escape.
“It’s sort of like getting out of an airplane,” Robert Mongeluzzi, a Philadelphia attorney who has brought lawsuits against duck boat operators, told The Star early Friday morning. “This is not an open-sided boat where everybody can just pitch themselves over the side readily.”
Experts say canopies or other coverings on duck boats, which ride low to the water, create undue difficulty for passengers trying to escape if the vessel sinks below the surface, whether they have life preservers or not.
“The problem with canopies is that if you are wearing your life preserver and there is a canopy and the boat capsizes, then the floatation device will take you up in the canopy, pinning you inside the vessel,” Mongeluzzi said. “If you don’t wear your life preserver, then you don’t have the floatation to get to the surface if the boat sinks.”
Thursday’s incident is the latest in a string of high-profile deaths involving duck boats, originally designed for military use in World War II. Distinctive for their ability to travel on water or on land, they have since become vehicles used on lake tours.
Since the 1999 Miss Majestic catastrophe, incidents involving duck boats have killed people on land and water in cities ranging from Seattle to Philadelphia.
Ride the Ducks, which court records indicate originated in Branson before developing a national profile, has been involved in some of these incidents. In 2016, the company abandoned its operations in Philadelphia after two separate incidents resulted in three deaths.
“The bottom line is, why are these boats still being used?” said Jim Hall, who was NTSB chairman at the time of the Arkansas disaster. “These boats were not designed for recreational use, especially with large numbers of people and weather like this.
“The operator and the regulators know the danger. So to see these repeat occurrences, it’s just infuriating.”
Much of Thursday’s duck boat incident was captured on an eyewitness video, which showed two of the boats fighting helplessly against a storm and cutting out just as one started sinking.
Those watching gasped in shock throughout the nearly five-minute video.
“Oh, those poor people. Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh!”
“Oh, I feel for them.”
“Someone needs to help them.”
The waves continued to attack the boat as the onlookers helplessly watched.
“He’s gonna dump that thing.”
“They’re all hanging on for dear life in there, too, you know it.”
The second boat struggled nearby, but made it back safely.
“They should have never came out here with them things.”
“I’ve seen many a thunderstorm but never such forceful wind…that wind is fierce.”
At about four minutes into the video, the water was up to the open windows, splashing inside and onto the passengers.
Then the nose went under water. It was obvious the vessel was sinking.
“If there’s kids on there, those poor babies!”
Then loud gasps as the video abruptly ended.
“Oh, my God! Oh, no. Oh, my God!”
The sinking of Miss Majestic
There were no powerful storms battering Miss Majestic as it took off on May 1, 1999, with 21 people on board during a clear, sunny day near Hot Springs, Ark.
Just minutes into the ride, passengers noticed that the duck boat was taking on water. The day before, mechanics with Miss Majestic operator Land and Lakes Inc. tried to repair a faulty pump that was designed to bail water out of the boat.
Surviving passengers estimated that it took anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute for Miss Majestic to sink.
One passenger managed to escape before it went under, but the others, along with the operator, were trapped by the canopy roof and dragged down.
As the vehicle sank, six other passengers and the operator escaped and were rescued by boaters.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and found that the sinking was likely caused by the failure of the company, Land and Lakes Tours Inc., to adequately repair and maintain the vehicle. Also contributing to the sinking, the NTSB said, was a design flaw that failed to keep the vehicle afloat in a flooded condition. A lack of adequate oversight by the Coast Guard contributed to the unsafe condition of the vehicle, the NTSB said, and the continuous canopy roof — the very thing intended to protect passengers from the weather — contributed to the high loss of life.
“In some ways, the life jackets may have made it more difficult because they can potentially cause a person to be forced up against an enclosed area,” Gary Haupt, a retired captain with the former Missouri Water Patrol who used to oversee the Table Rock area, said Friday morning. “That would make it more difficult to escape when the boat is going down.”
It took two days to recover all the victims. Seven were found in the main passenger compartment — three still in their seats or on the deck and four found floating in the canopy, according to the NTSB.
“All but one of the survivors stated that the canopy was an impediment to their escape,” the NTSB report said. “One man said, ‘If you had the cover (canopy) off, everybody would have had a chance. With that cover on, there’s too many people didn’t have a chance because that thing (the Miss Majestic) sank so quick (sic).”
The force of the water rushing in over the stern, the report said, “was strong enough to sweep a 6-foot 6-inch, 260-pound man standing near the sixth row forward and pin him against the windshield.”
“As the Miss Majestic sank, the metal framework on both sides of the passengers and the continuous canopy over their heads essentially caged them, making escape in the limited available time extremely difficult. As the vehicle sank to the bottom of the lake, the natural buoyancy of the passenger’s bodies forced them into the overhead canopy, which acted like a net to entrap them and to prevent their vertical escape.”
At least two survivors told the NTSB they had to swim downward in order to escape the canopy.
“If the vehicle had not had a canopy, the passengers would not have had a barrier to vertical escape,” the report said. “They would not have been trapped inside the vehicle, and fewer passengers might have been killed. The Safety Board therefore concludes that the canopy on the Miss Majestic was a major impediment to the survival of the passengers.”
As a result of its investigation, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard require amphibious passenger vehicles to be equipped with a reserve method of buoyancy so vehicles would remain afloat in the event of flooding. Until that was done, the NTSB said, operators should remove the canopies or install a style that doesn’t restrict horizontal or vertical escape by passengers if the vehicle sinks.
On vehicles whose canopies have been removed and don’t yet have adequate backup buoyancy, the NTSB said, all passengers should be required to wear life jackets.
The NTSB, however, cannot enact regulations. And it’s frustrating, Hall said, when the agency’s recommendations are ignored.
“The Coast Guard has unfortunately not been as effective as it needs to be in trying to protect passengers on our waterways,” he said.
Troubled history of duck boats
Ride the Ducks got its start in Branson, according to court records. In 2001, it partnered with privately held themed entertainment company Herschend Family Entertainment to gain broader exposure.
Ride the Ducks would open in Philadelphia in 2003, and a year later, Herschend Family Entertainment would become Ride the Ducks’ sole owner. Herschend Family Entertainment was founded by Jack and Pete Herschend, the creators of Silver Dollar City in the Ozarks. In late 2017, the Branson operation was sold to Ripley Entertainment.
In 2010, Hungarian tourists Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem took a ride on a Ride the Ducks boat in Philadelphia. As the boat entered the water, the engine overheated and its operator dropped an anchor in the middle of a commercial shipping channel.
A shipping barge struck the duck boat, pushing portions of it underneath the surface of the Delaware River. Schwendtner and Prem drowned as a result.
In 2015, 68-year-old Beaumont, Texas, resident Elizabeth Karnicki was walking across an intersection when she was crushed to death by a Ride the Ducks boat traveling on land.
Karnicki’s husband sued the company, claiming that the duck boats have massive blind spots, causing its operators to not see pedestrians. The case later settled.
“They kill on land and they kill on the sea,” said Mongeluzzi, the Philadelphia attorney who represented Karnicki and the Hungarian tourists. “We have repeatedly called for duck boats to be banned.”
The Star’s Laura Bauer contributed to this report.