An amphibious tour boat carrying 31 people sank in a furious squall on a southwestern Missouri lake Thursday evening, leaving 17 people dead, including children, authorities said.
Nine of 11 members of one family on board died, Gov. Mike Parson said Friday.
The Ride the Ducks Branson duck boat went down in Table Rock Lake near Branson during strong winds that “came out of nowhere,” said Jim Pattison Jr., president of the business’s parent company.
Fourteen people survived, with passengers and workers on the nearby Showboat Branson Belle — still docked as people boarded for a cruise — helping to rescue them, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said.
Those who died ranged in age from 1 to 70, he said.
Speaking on CNN International, Parson said, “One lady lost nine of 11 members of her family. … I had a chance to talk to her, and it’s difficult to find the right words to say other than your thoughts and prayers are with her.” The woman’s 13-year-old nephew also survived, the governor said.
Video posted by Jennie Phillips-Hudson Carr, which she recorded from the Branson Belle, showed at least three vessels on the lake at the time, including two duck boats rocking and tilting to the side as ripples turned into massive waves.
Strong winds whipped waves head-on onto the boats. One vessel returned to shore safely, but the boat behind it eventually sank.
“Oh my God, those poor people, oh no!” someone says on the video as the water crashes into the smaller boats.
“If there’s kids on there, those poor babies,” a female voice says.
Footage shows the doomed boat’s nose apparently submerged before the video ends. The boat sank, wheels down, 40 feet down, and then rolled to an area 80 feet deep, Rader said. By late Friday morning, all 17 bodies had been recovered, US Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Tasha Sadowicz said.
Among those killed was the driver, Robert “Bob” Williams, said his widow, Judy Williams.
A second crew member — the boat’s captain, whose name wasn’t immediately released — was among the survivors and was taken to a hospital, said Pattison, president of Ripley Entertainment Inc.
Rader, the sheriff, said life jackets were on the boat, but he doesn’t know whether people were wearing them.
The Coast Guard will conduct an investigation, said Sgt. Jason Pace of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which is assisting. A team from the National Transportation Safety Board was to travel to the scene Friday.
Duck boats are amphibious vessels that travel on both land and water, and are popular among tourists in major cities. The boats’ history dates back to World War II, when such vessels were a common sight due to their versatility.
Severe storm hit Branson area
Branson was under a severe thunderstorm warning shortly after 6:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. ET), about half an hour before the boat sank.
Radar shows the first wind gusts arriving at the lake ahead of the storm, at 6:59 p.m., with speeds above 60 mph. Authorities received the first 911 call about the sinking at 7:09 p.m., the sheriff said.
In July, the company operates tours that depart every 30 minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. A tour lasts about 70 minutes, with about half on land and half on water, the company’s website says.
The storm was part of the same upper-level weather system that spawned destructive tornadoes Thursday in Iowa, Missouri’s northern neighbor.
Nearby passenger ‘watched the … boat nose-dive’
Pattison said he didn’t know when the doomed boat — or the one just in front of it — started the tour or entered the water.
Kourtney Parker, a passenger on the duck boat in front, told CNN that both vessels had delayed their entry into the lake before the storm arrived.
“We got toward the lake ramp, but our propeller quit working. So we had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a backup bus, which set us back and that (other) boat, because we were in front of them, and they had to wait for us,” Parker said.
After the boats entered the water, she said, they “got about halfway across the lake, and then, bam, everything all happened so fast,” she said. “We were literally under water a couple times.”
Videos that Parker posted to Twitter, recorded from inside her boat, showed the vessel rocking on the rough waves.
“We got out of it and made it to the ramp. And I turned around and watched the other boat nose-dive, and my heart dropped,” she said.
Pattison said he believes it was calm when the boats went into the water.
“Partway through coming back is when … the waves picked up and then obviously swamped the boat,” he said Friday morning.
There were reports of damage throughout Stone County, including trees down and structural damage, CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said. The highest wind gust reported in the area was 63 mph.
Showboat crew and passengers scrambled to help
Passengers on the Branson Belle, Trent Behr and his girlfriend, Allison Lester, described what they saw when they appeared Friday on ABC’s “Good Morning America”
Lester said the weather had been nice Thursday. But as she and Behr boarded the dinner boat cruise, “the wind really picked up bad and debris was flying everywhere,” she said.
As they toured the dinner boat, the couple looked out the window and saw the duck boats struggling in the water.
“It was maybe two minutes later, and we actually heard the captain say that the boat flipped or the boat is sinking,” Behr said.
Behr said that at one point, he and other passengers on the dinner boat helped pull an unconscious woman from the water. EMTs arrived before he could administer CPR, he said.
Among the rescuers was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy on the Branson Belle who “jumped in and helped,” said Rader, the sheriff.
‘This should never end this way’
Ripley Entertainment said it recently acquired the boat company. The boat had a captain and a driver with a commercial license, he said.
“Obviously we shouldn’t be out there in severe weather,” Pattison said. The company has been in operation for 47 years without any incident such as this, he said.
Asked whether the passengers and two crew members had time to put on life jackets, Pattison said, “We don’t know that yet.”
“People are supposed to be able to go out for an outing and have a good time. This should never end this way — there’s not much more you can say,” he said when asked whether he had a message for relatives of those who were aboard.
Driver was ‘the calmest spirit you could ever meet’
Williams, the driver, was a caring man who was friendly to everybody, his widow told CNN.
“He’d talk to anybody. He made an effect on many lives. He would give up his life for somebody,” she said in an emotional phone interview Friday. “That’s the kind of man Robert was, is.”
His grandson, Victor Richardson, told CNN: “He was a God-fearing man; he was very humble. He was the calmest spirit you could ever meet.”
Bob and Judy Williams were married for more than 30 years and lived in Branson, according to the grandson.
‘Our hearts are breaking’
Ride the Ducks Branson said it was deeply saddened and that the business would be closed “while we support the investigation, and to allow time to grieve for the families and the community.”
“Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking,” it said in a statement on its website. “We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved and the authorities as they continue with the search and rescue.”
The NTSB, on Twitter, sought the public’s help for photos or video of the sinking.
Branson, a popular family vacation destination, is about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City, Missouri.
This story has been updated from its previous version.