Branson duck boat accident: Area warned of storms 8 hours in advance

Seventeen people, including children, were killed when a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, on Thursday evening.

Nine members of one family and the driver of the Ride the Ducks tourist boat were among the victims as the vessel sank in 40 feet of water, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader told reporters Friday. The captain of the boat survived.

Rader said the amphibious boat is currently resting upright on its wheels in 80 feet of water.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said other details of the accident remained unclear as local, state and federal authorities began an investigation.

The Table Rock Lake Chamber of Commerce has partnered with other area groups to collect donations through GoFundMe for those impacted by the incident.

What happened? 

The boat, carrying 29 passengers and two crew members, flipped during a severe thunderstorm.

Seven passengers – three children and four adults – received medical attention at the nearby Cox Medical Center in Branson, Missouri. Three were admitted as patients. Two are in the critical care unit and one is in "fair condition," said Kaitlyn McConnell, a media relations coordinator at CoxHealth.

The death toll rose to 17 throughout Thursday evening and into the morning Friday as missing passengers were found in the lake.

What was the weather like?

The National Weather Service in Springfield predicted winds up to 70 mph Thursday, and issued a severe thunderstorm watch from 11:20 a.m. until 9 p.m., according to NWS meteorologist Kelsey Angle.

"Conditions were coming together for the potential for severe storms, with widespread damaging winds likely," Angle said. "Isolated winds gusts of 70 to 75 miles per hour would be possible."

The storm hit the lake with 80 mph winds that kicked up waves 5 feet high, said Capt. Jim Pulley, owner of Sea Tow Table Rock Lake.

The Branson Airport reported winds of 63 mph at 7:25 p.m., Angle said. Rolling terrain, trees and buildings can slow "straight-line" wind but it picks up speed when it hits flat, open water because there is less drag to slow it down, she added.

How are duck boats regulated? 

Federal officials have expressed concerns for nearly 20 years about duck boat regulations. Because the boats operate on both land and water, they are regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as well as the Coast Guard.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, has complained about a lack of uniform oversight for these vehicles. Because they are part boat and part bus, rules like when passengers must wear seat belts – yes on land, no in the water– can be confusing for companies.

What are the issues with their canopies?

Another safety concern for duck boats is their canopies. The Coast Guard requires all passengers wear life jackets while on the water. However, the NTSB recommends that passengers not wear them on duck boats because, if the boat sinks, passengers can become stuck under the canopy.

The NTSB has also urged the removal of canopies from the vehicles, but many companies who give duck boat tours leave them on.

Have there been other deadly duck boat accidents? 

Duck boats — amphibious vehicles that can travel on both land and water — have a long history of fatal crashes and accidents.

In 2015, five college students died and 69 others were injured in Seattle when a duck boat crashed with a bus. That same year, a woman in Philadelphia was killed when she was hit by a duck boat while crossing a street.

What are duck boats? 

Duck boats were first used during World War II to carry supplies over land and water to troops. When the war ended, the military made certain supplies available to the public, and Bob Unger, a veteran from Minnesota, purchased a boat and began giving tours along the Wisconsin River.

Since then, duck boat tours have become popular attractions across the United States, especially in cities with rivers like Boston and Washington, D.C.

In 2005, multiple "Ride the Duck" companies merged under the name Ride the Ducks International, LLC, according to the Missouri Secretary of State's website, including tours in Branson, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis and San Diego. In December, the company was acquired by Ripley Entertainment.