NTSB Says Ignored Safety Recommendations Caused Branson Duck Boat Tragedy

In July 2019, a high-wind storm on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri sank a duck boat operated by Ride the Ducks, a duck boat tour company that operated in Seattle, Branson, and other cities at the time. The amphibious vessel was carrying 31 passengers when it sank, eventually killing 17 of them in the rough waters. Many of those who died were part of the same family.

The vessel, Stretch Duck 7, was originally built in 1944 as a troop and equipment carrier during World War II. After WWII, duck boats were repurposed as tourist vehicles that took visitors on tours of both land and water. However, experts have noted that these vehicles are potentially unsuitable for civilian use; duck boats have been in involved in several high-profile, fatal accidents in just the last few years.

Because the Branson duck boat accident is part of an ongoing criminal investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board notes that it hasn't been privy to much information about the incident; key witnesses have declined to speak to the NTSB, and the Marine Board of Investigation (US Coast Guard) has not scheduled hearings as of November 2019. That said, the NTSB has gathered what it can to release a safety recommendation.

The Sinking of Miss Majestic in 1999

Two decades ago, another duck boat vehicle sank and caused multiple fatalities, prompting the NTSB to issue a safety recommendation. Then, the NTSB said that duck boats lacked "reserve buoyancy," which puts them at risk for rapid sinking. They also pointed out that duck boats made it difficult for passengers to exit in an emergency. In their 2000 report, they wrote that "the potential exists for another life-threatening accident similar to the sinking of the Miss Majestic, unless the vulnerability to flooding and sinking is addressed."

In their new report 19 years later, the NTSB repeats their original recommendations, noting that the same issues that sank the Stretch Duck 7 are the same issues that they identified in 2000: susceptibility to flooding, poor passenger safety, and more. In this case, the Stretch Duck 7 was caught in high winds and large waves, sinking it only 250 feet from the shore. Investigators found that there was no hull breach, and the side curtain on the vessel was only open on one side. The Miss Majestic flooded due to a gap in the driveshaft, but again, it was not due to a hull breach. Duck boats are, in their design, susceptible to flooding.

The safety recommendations in the updated NTSB report include:

  • Providing reserve buoyancy (improving stability in a flooding event)
  • Removing canopies and side curtains that trap passengers inside

In both cases, the NTSB recommends that the Coast Guard make these modifications mandatory.

Action Taken on Previous NTSB Duck Boat Recommendations

Since the sinking of Miss Majestic in 1999, the NTSB has issued 22 safety recommendations, but only 9 of them have been classified as "Closed - Acceptable Action" or "Closed - Exceeds Recommendation Action." Four of the remaining recommendations are currently awaiting a response, and nine more have been closed for either "Unacceptable Action" or "Unacceptable Response." In other words, nearly half of the safety recommendations made about duck boats have been ignored or defied.

Regarding the sinking of the Miss Majestic in 1999 and the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 in the 2018 Branson duck boat accident, the report says, "The NTSB believes that the failure to implement the safety recommendations related to providing reserve buoyancy for [duck boats] contributed to the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 on Table Rock Lake on July 19, 2018." It goes on to say that the fixed canopy on the Branson vessel also contributed to passenger fatalities, as was the case for Miss Majestic.

In other words, the NTSB has asserted that we've been here before, and we'll be here again if the duck boat industry doesn't take action on the agency's safety recommendations.

Lack of Voluntary Action by Duck Boat Operators

In 1999, the NTSB sent its recommendations to 30 duck boat operators. Half of them did not respond, two companies ceased using duck boats altogether, and the rest followed the recommended action or took alternate acceptable actions. Because half of the operators didn't respond at all, the NTSB recommended that the Coast Guard enforce the carrying-out of their safety recommendations.

The NTSB said, "Because the industry has, by and large, refused to take voluntary action to address this risk, the Safety Board considers it imperative that a regulatory authority takes steps to ensure that all amphibious passenger vehicles will not sink in the event of an uncontrolled flooding event." The Coast Guard disagreed, said that duck boats were as safe as any other vessel with the same size and passenger capacity, and took no action.

Shared Responsibility Among All Duck Boat Operators

Regardless of whether Ride the Ducks Branson received recommendations directly from the NTSB, the issues afflicting duck boats are a matter of public record. There is no excuse for any operator to continue using these poorly-designed, dangerous vessels as tourism vehicles. Should another soul ever suffer in a duck boat accident on the water, our duck boat accident lawyers will be there to hold them accountable and make sure these boats are either modified or removed from service.

Speak with Arnold & Itkin LLP today if you or a loved one was injured in a duck boat accident. Our firm advocates for the injured and grieving, helping them hold negligent companies accountable for their pain. Call (888) 493-1629 today for more information.

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