BRANSON, Mo. — The image from Table Rock Lake that onlookers say they will never forget is the heads, one after another, bobbing in the wild, darkened water.
One would pop up on the surface and then disappear. There were so many of them amid the pounding waves — there one moment, and then gone.
As a boat packed with tourists capsized during a fierce storm in a popular summertime region of southern Missouri, Table Rock Lake was transformed into a desperate struggle for survival. Fishermen and other tourists in passing boats and on docks tried to pull people up, and some tried to administer C.P.R. People raced to throw life jackets out, but the unstopping wind seemed to toss the jackets back.
“It was a nightmare,” said Ron Folsom, a tourist from Fort Smith, Ark., who said he was on a dock along with dozens of other stunned onlookers. With all the wind, he said, “all you could hear was squeals and screams and hollering.”
Seventeen people were killed in the accident on Thursday evening, and seven others, including three children, were taken to hospitals. Officials said that the victims ranged in age from 1 to 76. It was one of the deadliest accidents involving a duck boat — modeled after the amphibious trucks used in World War II to move along land and water — in United States history.
Nine of those who died were members of a family from Indianapolis who had traveled to Branson for their annual road trip, according to Carolyn Coleman, who said two of her brothers-in-law were among the deceased. Two other family members on the boat survived, she said.
Ms. Coleman said the family had rented a van and driven from Indiana to Missouri earlier in the week. She said members of three generations of the family died, including four young children. “We just lost some wonderful people,” Ms. Coleman said.
Around Branson, a showy city that draws throngs of tourists to the Midwest, residents said the storm had come up suddenly on Thursday evening, only a short time after weather officials had issued warnings, and with a shocking ferocity.
“The wind picked up, they gave the storm warning,” said Michael Homan, a resident, “and then massive, straight line winds came out of nowhere.”
As the National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard began investigations, the accident was raising new concerns about the safety of duck boats and about whether tourists should be passengers on them. After 13 people were killed when a duck boat sank in Hot Springs, Ark., in May 1999, the N.T.S.B. had called for sweeping changes to the way such tourist boats operate and are regulated. Once the boats take on too much water, the N.T.S.B. found at the time, they have a hard time staying afloat.
On Thursday evening, storms swept through the Midwest. Tornadoes damaged communities in Iowa. And in Branson, as a storm arrived, two duck boats were on Table Rock Lake, and both were returning to land at the time of the accident. “The first one made it out, and the second one didn’t,” Sheriff Doug Rader of Stone County said.
The National Weather Service’s office in Springfield, Mo., issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m. for southern Missouri, including Table Rock Lake, about 35 minutes before the authorities received the first calls about the sinking of the boat. Weather officials said the storm entered the area with wind gusts up to 75 m.p.h., which were followed by heavy rain and lightning.
“We knew there was going to be the potential for severe weather and knew that in advance,” Jeff Raberding, a weather service meteorologist, said.
The boat that sank had life jackets, but the sheriff said he did not know if people were wearing them. Of the 31 people on board, 29 were passengers and two were crew members. The boat’s captain, who had 16 years of experience on the lake, survived and was taken to a hospital, but the authorities said the other crew member, whose job was to drive the vehicle when it moved onto land, died.
Online videos of Branson duck boat tours from recent years show life jackets stowed beneath the roof of the boats, within arm’s reach of an adult. But few if any patrons were wearing them on those trips.
The Coast Guard requires life jackets to be available for each passenger on a boat, including duck boats, but allows the crew to decide when to instruct passengers to put them on.
Jim Pattison Jr., the president of Ripley Entertainment, which acquired the Ride the Ducks attraction in Branson last year, said the boats were always stocked with life jackets, but that people were not required to wear them. The weather was calm when the boat left the dock on Thursday. Mr. Pattison said this was the first such accident at Ride the Ducks, which was started more than 40 years ago.
In an interview, Mr. Pattison said the company had policies in place to keep boats off the water during dangerous weather, but he was unsure of the exact threshold for aborting a tour. “I was told that it was calm” when the boat went out on the water, Mr. Pattison said. He said the boats typically spend 15 to 20 minutes in the water on a circular route through Table Rock Lake.
“This is a real tragedy, and we can’t say enough about how devastated we are,” Mr. Pattison said. “It’s hard to think about.”
Duck boats are modeled after DUKWs, which brought materials ashore during the invasion of Normandy and hauled howitzers during the landings in Iwo Jima. In the decades since, duck vehicles have been used to transport tourists in places like Philadelphia, the Wisconsin Dells and Branson.
Such boats have had mixed safety records over the years, both on water and land. In Philadelphia in 2010, a duck boat that stalled in the Delaware River was struck by a barge being towed by a tugboat, killing two people. On land, pedestrians and a motorist were killed in recent years in accidents involving the vehicles in Philadelphia and Boston. In 2015, a duck boat collided with a bus in Seattle, killing five people.
Critics say duck boats have avoided tougher safety requirements, in part because oversight for them is divided among various entities, including the Coast Guard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the various state and city governments where the boats operate.
Before Thursday’s accident, the deadliest event involving a duck boat was the 1999 accident in Arkansas, when the Miss Majestic sank to the bottom of Lake Hamilton. The N.T.S.B. cited inadequate maintenance as the cause and ordered duck boat operators nationwide, including the company in Branson, to outfit their vessels with additional flotation devices to help prevent sinking.
The victims on the Miss Majestic drowned after they became trapped beneath the boat’s heavy canopy as the vessel took on water and eventually sank in 60 feet of water, the N.T.S.B. found.
The N.T.S.B. investigation found that the United States Coast Guard had failed to follow its own rules regulating the vessels. The agency’s report said that the Coast Guard had generally displayed a “lack of adequate oversight” and that its inspection of the vessel had been “inadequate and cursory.”
The likely reason for that sinking, according to the N.T.S.B., was that the vessel’s owner, Land and Lakes Tours, had failed to maintain the boat. The safety board also found that duck boats converted for passenger service lacked adequate buoyancy to stay afloat once they began to flood.
It issued a stern warning to operators of duck boats to fix the problem: “Without delay, alter your amphibious passenger vessels to provide reserve buoyance through passive means, such as watertight compartmentalization, built-in flotation, or equivalent measures, so that they will remain afloat and upright in the event of flooding, even when carrying a full complement of passengers and crew.”
It is not clear whether duck boat operators complied, and the Coast Guard, which regulates duck boats, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
In Branson, 70-minute rides take visitors past notable sights along city streets before plunging into Table Rock Lake. The rides are popular with children, who receive yellow duck whistles that make a quacking noise, and have long been a fixture of Branson itineraries, along with the Dolly Parton’s Stampede dinner show and roller coasters at the Silver Dollar City amusement park.
According to an archived version of the tour company’s website, the duck boats include “modern safety equipment” and “patented safety features that no other DUKW-style vehicle has.”
“So, relax and enjoy this unique experience,” the website said.
On Thursday, Curt Elleman, a tourist from Overland Park, Kan., was walking along the shoreline of the lake when the weather turned stormy. He saw two duck boats making their way through the waves. One began sinking.
“It started taking on water on the right rear,” he said. “And it just kept getting heavier and heavier.”
Panicked, people tried to help. Someone on a private pontoon boat pulled up a lifeless body, and raced to shore.
“It’s tragic and horrific to watch something like that,” Mr. Elleman said. “When you’re standing on land and something’s happening in the water, there’s not a lot that you can do.”
Around a bend in the lake, dock hands at a nearby marina rushed into the stormy waters after their manager said people needed help.
Todd Lawrence, 20, donned a life vest and hopped into a 24-foot tritoon with three other workers, and they set off on water that was rougher than he had ever experienced on Table Rock Lake, which he has boated since he was a toddler growing up in Branson. What he found around the bend in the lake was grim. He and his colleagues pulled an unconscious man from the water and tried to revive him. None of the people he or his co-workers pulled into boats were wearing life jackets.
“I don’t want to say 100 percent, but it’s really hard to drown with a life jacket,” he said, pausing as he stared silently at the ground.
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