After 17 people were killed when a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake, lawmakers and experts are pledging to examine whether the amphibious vehicles should continue to be used commercially.
When a storm generated strong winds and high waves Thursday, a Ride the Ducks vessel was battered by swells and began taking on water, eventually sinking in roughly 40 feet of water, leading to the deaths of more than a dozen tourists.
The National Transportation Safety Board has initiated an investigation, which could last more than a year, into what specifically caused not only the accident but also the loss of life on the boat. The design of the duck boat and others like it also is being called into question.
After a similar accident in 1999 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the NTSB made a host of recommendations to duck boat operators, including that the canopies the boats commonly have be removed because they can interfere with an evacuation of passengers in an emergency. The U.S. Coast Guard did not implement the NTSB's recommendations, leaving business operators to decide for themselves whether to heed the advice.
Based on an amphibious vehicle that was used to transport ammunition and other military supplies in World War II, duck boats morphed into popular tourist attractions across the country because of their ability to travel on land or in the water. Even when they were designed for military purposes, safety was a secondary consideration, said Lane Roberts, who was formerly the Joplin police chief and director of the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the highway and water patrols.
"The original model they worked from was not designed for safety to begin with," Roberts said. "There was some criticism about the design of the vehicle and, as I said, it’s modeled after a military vehicle whose first design was one of utility, not safety."
Roberts is also a candidate for the Missouri House of Representatives and said he believes legislation to address the boats may be necessary.
U.S. Rep. Billy Long, whose 7th District includes the Branson area where the accident happened, said he talked to someone who has worked with duck boats for more than a decade after the accident.
"He said they really are a problem," Long said. "He said they’re very, very dangerous … even if you have life preservers on, that they’re very hard to get out of because of the plexiglass enclosure. So this is something that needs to be investigated thoroughly. These were World War II vehicles that were designed to carry cargo; they were not designed to carry people."
Long stopped short of saying the vehicles should be banned, saying the NTSB investigation will determine whether continuing duck boat operations is appropriate.
"I think it’s time to figure out whether they need to stay a part of tourism around the United States," he said.
State Rep. Bill White, of Joplin, said the uniqueness of the vehicles means they could be under the regulatory jurisdiction of multiple agencies. If the state has authority over their operation, he said, he would recommend legislative hearings to gather input from experts.
"You’d have people come in and testify," he said. "You’d get the NTSB or the Coast Guard or the vendors that have some expertise that would testify. Should you have to wear life jackets on the Branson Belle? Where do you differentiate what level of risk is appropriate or not, and that’s why we’d have hearings to find out."
White said public safety is and would be paramount in any legislative or regulatory change or recommendation on duck boats.
"I’ve ridden the ducks one time in probably the last 20 years and, you know, I guess I was a little uncomfortable," he said. "Just being in there with the enclosure. I believe the one we were in had roll-up sides, so it wasn’t solid. Not being the best of swimmers in the world, I guess I was a little uncomfortable, you could say."
Both of Missouri's U.S. senators issued statements after the tragedy. Sen. Roy Blunt said the incident "never should have happened." Sen. Claire McCaskill has said she will examine possible legislative solutions and likely will start with the 1999 NTSB recommendations.
"I am closely monitoring the investigation to determine how the Coast Guard and the operator responded to previous NTSB recommendations," Blunt's statement said. "Based on the findings of the investigation and any new recommendations, I stand ready to pursue whatever action is necessary to keep this from happening again.”
“It’s encouraging to see the professionalism and cooperation between state and local officials and the two federal agencies investigating this tragedy," McCaskill said in her release. "I’m grateful to (Branson) Mayor (Karen) Best, the Red Cross, and the brave men and women" of Missouri's highway and water patrols — particularly the divers who had the worst job of all (Thursday)."