BRANSON — The seriousness of the tragedy on Table Rock Lake became apparent to Pat Cox when he arrived at the site of a sunken tour boat immediately after Thursday night's storm and there were no survivors floating in life jackets.
"The storm had passed and the water was very flat," said Cox, who owns State Park Marina on Table Rock Lake. "There was a lot of debris in the water and a few life jackets, rings that people had tossed [from the Showboat Branson Belle]. ...
"In our mind, let's get out there as quick as we can because there's people in the water," Cox said. "But to pull up and not see a single person waving their arms, floating, that was really a tragic, worst-case scenario."
Seventeen of the 31 people onboard died when an amphibious passenger vehicle sank Thursday night in Table Rock Lake.
Nine of the dead were from the same Indianapolis family, said Thomas Griffith, suffragan bishop of Zion Tabernacle Apostolic Faith Church in Indianapolis. He didn't name them. Two people from the family survived, a spokesman for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said.
Authorities had not publicly identified the dead Friday evening but said they included a 1-year-old child.
Seven of the 14 survivors were hospitalized and one of them was in critical condition, said Sgt. Jason Pace with the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The captain survived, authorities said, but the driver of the boat died.
Mayor Karen Best identified the driver as Bob Williams, known informally as "Captain Bob."
"He was a great ambassador for Branson," Best said. "He was at every event. He knew everyone. He was always promoting Branson."
Branson is about 10 miles north of the Arkansas state line.
Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said the company was assisting authorities. She said it was the company's only accident in more than 40 years of operation.
Brayden Malaske, of Harrah, Okla., boarded a replica 19th-century paddle-wheeler known as the Showboat Branson Belle on the same lake just before the storm hit. At the time, he said, the water seemed calm and no one was worried about the weather.
"But it suddenly got very dark," Malaske recalled.
In a short video taken by Malaske from a dock, the duck boat can be seen wallowing through the choppy, wind-whipped lake, with water only inches from its windows. Dark, rolling waves crash over its front end. The footage ends before the boat capsizes.
Later, people on Malaske's boat saw a duck boat passenger "hanging on for dear life" to the paddle wheel of the Belle, he said.
Before Cox got to the site, his son James and marina store manager Roger Carpenter set out in a tritoon and rescued two would-be rescuers while the storm still raged.
"They pulled up to the scene and there was still some really heavy wave action," Cox said. "The boat was bobbing up and down, and they were able to hear screams. They found four individuals, two of which were in the water struggling and two deceased people."
Cox said the two people rescued were employees of the Showboat Branson Belle, which docks near the site where the accident occurred. They had dived into the water to try to rescue people on the sinking boat.
"As Roger described it, one of the guys was in bad shape," Cox said. "Roger said he was hanging on to one of the deceased people."
Cox said the storm rolled in with "a serious wallop," generating 5-foot-tall waves, the biggest waves he has seen in his 22 years on the lake.
The National Weather Service station in Springfield, about 40 miles north of Branson, issued a severe-thunderstorm watch for its immediate area Thursday, saying conditions were ripe for winds of 70 mph. It followed up at 6:32 p.m. with a severe-thunderstorm warning for three counties that included Branson and the lake. The warning mentioned both locations. The boat went down about 40 minutes later, shortly after 7 p.m.
"About halfway through the storm, we got word through somebody's phone that there was a duck or ducks in the water," said Cox, referring to amphibious tour boats. "So immediately we were alarmed knowing the conditions being so severe."
He said one of his employees later found a third body in the water.
The amphibious tour boat company posted a message Friday on its website, bransonducks.com, saying it was "deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride The Ducks Branson."
"This incident has deeply affected all of us," the statement read. "Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking."
The business's parking lot became a makeshift memorial Friday, with people draping flowers on the vehicles of those who died in the accident. A church group arrived and placed hands on a vehicle to pray for those who died.
Capt. Scott Stoermer with the U.S. Coast Guard based in St. Louis said the tour boat was still under the lake Friday afternoon. He didn't know when it would be raised to the surface. He said that would be decided after investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene, and they were on the way.
Cox said the boat appeared to be trying to angle its way back to the dock when it sank. He said the area where the boat ended up is about 80 feet deep.
Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said the boat sank in 40 feet of water and rolled on its wheels into a deeper area.
Investigators had no information about whether passengers were wearing life jackets or whether they were stowed onboard, Rader said.
Originally known as DUKW boats, the amphibious vehicles were used by the U.S. military in World War II and the Korean War. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.
The tours are popular among tourists and locals, according to Best, the mayor. Tours begin in the downtown area, with the captain pointing out landmarks along the way. Eventually the tour makes its way to the lake and the vehicles enter the water.
Stoermer said the boat was required to stay within a certain distance of the shore. He said its normal route is to go around an island in the lake, "do a little sightseeing tour," and return to the boat ramp.
Nicknamed for their ability to travel on land and in water, "duck boats" have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.
Thirteen people died in 1999 when one of the vessels sank near Hot Springs on Lake Hamilton. Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus, and two passengers on a duck boat were killed in 2010 near Philadelphia when a barge collided with the smaller vessel.
Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press and by The Washington Post.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (left) and Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader talk to reporters on Friday at Table Rock Lake about Thursday’s deadly sinking.
Rina Bernard (left) and Keri Johnson leave flowers Friday on a car believed to belong to one of the victims of Thursday’s duck-boat accident in Branson.
Duck boats sit idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks, which was closed Friday.
A Section on 07/21/2018
Print Headline: Deaths at 17 in sinking; a rush to rescue in vain