By MARGARET STAFFORD, Associated Press
BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — Divers found four more bodies Friday in a Missouri lake where a duck boat packed with tourists capsized and sank in high winds, bringing the death toll to 17 in the country-and-western town of Branson, authorities said.
Investigators blamed stormy weather for the accident Thursday evening on Table Rock Lake. Winds at the time were blowing as hard as 65 mph (105 kph), according to the National Weather Service.
The boat was carrying 29 passengers and two crew members on a pleasure cruise, and authorities said everyone aboard had been accounted for. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt when the vessel went down. At least two were hospitalized in critical condition, officials said.
The crew member who was operating the boat died, but the captain survived, authorities said.
Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.
Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus. Thirteen people died in 1999 when a boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“Duck boats are death traps,” said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. “They’re not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat.”
Safety advocates have sought improvements and complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements.
The boats were originally designed for the military, specifically to transport troops and supplies in World War II. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.
Passengers on a nearby boat described the chaos as the winds picked up and the water turned rough.
“Debris was flying everywhere,” Allison Lester said in an interview Friday with ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
A severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for Branson at 6:32 p.m. Thursday, about 40 minutes before the boat tipped over.
Lester’s boyfriend, Trent Behr, said they saw a woman in the water and helped to pull her into the boat. He said he was about to start CPR when an EMT arrived and took over.
Investigators from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board were to investigate. Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader urged anyone with video or photos of the accident to contact authorities.
Divers located the vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lakebed, and authorities planned to recover it later Friday.
The boat sank in 40 feet (12 meters) of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 80 feet (25 meters) of water. Investigators had no information about whether passengers were wearing life jackets or whether they were stowed onboard, the sheriff said.
The names of the dead were not immediately released.
An off-duty deputy working security for the boat company helped rescue people after the boat turned over, the sheriff said. Dive teams from several law enforcement agencies assisted in the effort.
Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said the company was assisting authorities. She said this was the ride’s only accident in more than 40 years of operation.
Weather can change rapidly in this part of the country, moving from sunshine and calm to dangerous storms within minutes, weather service meteorologist Jason Schaumann said.
“Tornado warnings get a lot of publicity, and severe thunderstorm warnings should be taken very seriously too, particularly if you are in a vulnerable area like a lake or campground,” he said.
President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences, extending his “deepest sympathies” to the families and friends of those involved.
Branson, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Kansas City, is a country-themed tourist mecca built on a reputation for patriotic and religious-themed shows in numerous theaters.
Table Rock Lake, east of Branson, was created in the late 1950s when the Corps of Army Engineers built a dam across the White River to provide hydroelectric power to the Ozarks.
Associated Press writers Jim Salter in St. Louis; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri; and John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.