A year after tragedy, Branson debates future of duck boats
BRANSON, Mo. — One year after 17 people died when a boat sank on a Missouri lake near the tourist town of Branson, the question of whether the boats should return to the lake remains a topic of debate.
Former Branson Mayor Karen Best had to inform the 17 victims’ families that they had died when the boat sank during a storm on July 19, 2018, on Table Rock Lake. She said she will never forget the cries and screaming of the families and survivors.
“I don’t know that they need to come back to this community,” Best said about the duck boats.
The amphibious vehicles, which operated on land and water, were a popular attraction in Branson for nearly 50 years. They are not operating this year, and Ripley Entertainment, which owns Branson Ride The Ducks, has not said whether they will return, The Kansas City Star reported .
The current mayor, Edd Akers, who was elected in April, said it’s possible the duck boats could return to Branson if they are altered and have improved safety features.
“They’re still operating in other parts of the country,” he said. “They are still successful in different areas. You know, if they are meant to come back and are supposed to come back, I think it could.”
Akers acknowledged that the boats are still a sensitive topic after the tragedy.
“I just want you to know that people are still hurting here,” he said.
Thirty-one people were aboard when the duck boat entered the lake. A storm came up suddenly and the waves swamped the boat before it could make it back to shore. Fourteen people survived.
Some witnesses aboard the Showboat Branson Belle and first responders who tried to save people have struggled with emotional and psychological scars left from the tragedy.
“I have good friends who were on the showboat, either working there or saw the tragedy take place,” Akers said. “Start talking to them and their eyes water because they saw things that they don’t like to remember.”
Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader recalled “utter chaos” at the scene and being told 31 people were aboard the boat but not being able to see many survivors.
“In almost 30 years of law enforcement, that was probably one of the most traumatic events I have been involved in,” He said. ” . I had a deputy on there (the Belle) who jumped in and helped save people and dragged the deceased out of the water. He’ll forever be affected by that. The emotional impact it made on everyone in this area, that tragedy will never be forgotten.”
Tia Coleman, of Indianapolis, lost her husband, three children and five other relatives in the sinking. She said in a statement Tuesday that she draws energy from the memory of her family as she continues her fight to ban “dangerous, death trap duck boats like the one that killed my family and the others.”
Interviews with tourists visiting Branson recently found they were also split on whether the boats should return. Some said the attraction should open again because the sinking was a freak accident caused by a storm that came up to quickly or bad judgment by the operators. Others said they would never consider riding the boats, even if they were altered or improved.
Court filings by Ripley Entertainment this month show that 19 of 33 others who have filed claims against the company have already settled. Three duck boat employees, including the captain, Kenneth Scott McKee, 52, face criminal prosecution.
Akers said that once all the lawsuits are settled, he will propose that the city create a memorial to the duck boat victims.
“I want a peaceful, reverent place,” the mayor said, “close to the lake where families of those lost family members, or those who were affected by the tragedy, could come and pay their respects. That would, to me, be the ideal way to honor those folks.”