Accidents

Coast Guard To Change Regs After Duck Boat Tragedy

After resisting two key safety recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board for years, the U.S. Coast Guard has committed to adopting them in the wake of the investigation into the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo. The sinking, July 19, 2018, resulted in 17 deaths out of 29 passengers and two crewmembers.

The Coast Guard’s initiative, in a letter from Vice Adm. Daniel Abel, was released after a virtual public hearing of the five-member NTSB board April 28. The Coast Guard said it would release a Marine Safety Information Bulletin requiring canopies and their framing covering outside passenger spaces to be removed. The NTSB had found that the canopies contributed to passenger fatalities by trapping passengers with life vests equipped with flotation devices.

The NTSB issued six safety recommendations, with three recommendations issued to Ripley Entertainment Inc., which operated the Ride The Ducks attraction, and three recommendations to the Coast Guard.  These recommendations address safety issues related to company oversight, engine compartment ventilation closures, reserve buoyancy, survivability, weather training for mariners and Coast Guard guidance.

The NTSB had earlier issued two safety recommendations on November 13, 2019, calling for sufficient reserve buoyancy and improved emergency egress on DUKW amphibious passenger vessels.

Although the Coast Guard and NTSB each conducted their own separate investigations, the NTSB was designated as lead investigator in this incident. According to a memorandum of understanding between the two agencies, the NTSB takes the lead in investigations that meet certain conditions, including fatalities of three or more people.

Derecho Winds Swamped Boat

The amphibious tour boat Stretch Duck 7 sank in an estimated 10 to 15 seconds after a storm, fronted by winds of up to 73 mph.,  slammed into the lake, creating waves that swamped the boat. The storm was a type known as a derecho, defined as “a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms.” Derechos can cause hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains and flash floods.

The NTSB findings may result in additional Coast Guard changes to how small passenger vessels are regulated, including requiring safety management systems for smaller vessels that are not required to have them now, although the Stretch Duck 7 did have an SMS.

Coast Guard Criticized

Following the board meeting, the NTSB released its final statement on the incident. It issued 19 findings, several of which criticized the Coast Guard for failing to heed earlier NTSB recommendations regarding reserve buoyancy on similar vessels, including one in 1999 that resulted in fatalities. The statement said a navigation notice—NVIC 1-01, issued by the Coast Guard in response to earlier recommendations—did not adequately address the canopy issue. Had the Coast Guard heeded the earlier recommendations, the loss of life on Stretch Duck 7 likely would not have been as great, the report said.

Another finding said that improved training on weather and other safety matters was needed for operators of small passenger vessels. The report notes that the vessels did have safety management systems, even though they were not required at the time for these types of vessels, but said they did not have enough specific recommendations and instructions for dealing with adverse weather conditions.

Probable Cause

For the accident’s probable cause, the NTSB’s statement said it was a combination of several factors: the company’s decision to continue to operate the tour boats despite receiving warnings about severe weather, combined with design limitations in the boat, including the lack of reserve buoyancy and a leaky forward hatch that allowed water into the engineroom.

“Had Ride The Ducks employees taken more appropriate actions and made better decisions, it is likely the duck boat would not have sunk, because they would not have continued operations based on the weather forecast and prevailing conditions,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt.

Another tour boat, the Stretch Duck 56, operating nearby under the same conditions, did not sink. But although it was of a similar design, it was slightly wider, had slightly more freeboard and had a tighter forward hatch that did not admit water.

Before the board voted on issuing the final report, Sumwalt asked investigating board members why the probable cause conclusion did not mention the captain’s actions. They replied that they believed he did not receive the proper decision tools from management, which received weather information ashore and was responsible for forwarding it to the boats.

Although one board member pointed out that many apps on cell phones could have provided such information, company policy prohibited duck boat operators from using cell phones while driving the boats on land. An urgent warning of an impending storm from the National Weather Service was received by the company at 6:28 p.m.; two minutes later, the boat entered the water. Investigators pointed out that three other tour boats ahead of him had been given permission to sail even after the storm warnings.

Commended Branson Belle Crew

Among the findings was one that commended the crew and passengers of the Branson Belle, a paddlewheel boat docked near the site of the sinking. Not only did both crew and passengers of the Branson Belle rescue many of the passengers of the Stretch Duck 7 before first responders could arrive, some of them took cell phone videos and photos that proved valuable in the investigation, board members said.

Board members acknowledged that the investigation has extended longer than the usual 12-month timeframe but said conditions were unusual. Among other limitations, board members were unable to interview the captain of the Stretch Duck 7, Scott McKee, due to a separate ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. McKee and two executives of Ripley Entertainment remain charged with 17 counts of misconduct and negligence of attention to duty. Since the accident, Ripley has settled 31 lawsuits from family members of the various passengers. It has suspended the tours, and it is not clear if they will resume.

The duck boats (designated DUK-W in a wartime production code) are amphibious boats designed and built in the 1940s, originally to ferry troops during World War II. The “Ride The Ducks” attraction has operated in Branson for 50 years. Ripley Entertainment bought the attraction in 2017.

An abstract of the NTSB’s final report, which includes the findings, probable cause and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xvEzG.

The final report for the investigation is expected to be published in the next few weeks. Links to the accident docket and related news releases for the investigation are available at https://go.usa.gov/xvTSs.

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