Critics Say Calls To Change 'Duck Boat' Designs Have Gone Unheeded

Jul 20, 2018
Originally published on July 20, 2018 8:37 pm
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As investigators try to figure out what went wrong in Branson, some experts are focusing on the decision to launch the tour boat with a thunderstorm approaching, and others are pointing to the boat itself. It's not the first fatal accident involving a duck boat, as NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Watching cellphone video showing not just one but two duck-style tour boats being battered and tossed about by waves, whipped up by 60- to 80-mile-an-hour wind gusts, what sticks out to veteran sea captain Richard Werner is that the duck boats were even out on the water at all.

RICHARD WERNER: You know, we could all see that there were some storm advisories that were issued several hours before this duck boat tour.

SCHAPER: Werner runs Safe Boating America, a company that provides safety training for boat captains, including those who operate the popular amphibious duck boats. And he says even if the vessel left the shore before the severe thunderstorm warning that was issued about 30 minutes before the boat sank, the captain should have known what was coming.

WERNER: We have instant access to weather data.

SCHAPER: Werner says there is technology available showing up-to-the-minute weather conditions. Even apps on our smartphones can show detailed weather radar images. The former president of the American Meteorological Society, Marshall Shepherd, tweeted that the tragedy was completely preventable because satellites, advanced radars, good weather models and all short-term weather information showed the storms approaching well before the boat was on the water. But it's not just if the captain had an ample warning that investigators will examine.

DEBBIE HERSMAN: There's a long history of the NTSB looking at duck boat incidents.

SCHAPER: Former NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman says one duck boat incident in particular of note is the sinking of the Miss Majestic in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1999.

HERSMAN: The investigators in that event found that many of the passengers and the operator ended up getting trapped by the vehicle's canopy roof as it was going underwater.

SCHAPER: Hersman notes that the duck boat in yesterday's incident also had a hard canopy roof as well as clear, plastic windows to protect passengers from wind and rain when it went down, which may have made it more difficult for those on board to escape. In addition, she says, investigators have flagged problems with the buoyancy of duck boats.

HERSMAN: Because the duck boats have open interiors and a very low freeboard at the stern, they're vulnerable to rapid swamping and sinking.

ROBERT MONGELUZZI: Duck boats are death traps.

SCHAPER: Attorney Robert Mongeluzzi represented victims of a 2010 fatal duck boat crash in Philadelphia. He says passengers trapped inside a duck boat can drown whether they have a life jacket on or not. He notes that the NTSB recommended eliminating those canopy roofs 15 years ago.

MONGELUZZI: The duck boat industry totally ignored them. They did nothing.

SCHAPER: Authorities on scene in Missouri say it may take several days to raise the duck boat out of Table Rock Lake, but crews will make every effort to preserve evidence. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "JYNWEYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.