Woman who lost 9 family members in duck boat tragedy urges ban on the craft

Tia Coleman.

The Indiana woman who lost nine members of her family in a duck boat sinking last month in Missouri wants the amphibious vehicles banned.

“Duck boats are death traps, nobody else should have to go through that,” said Tia Coleman, who survived the accident in Table Rock Lake near Branson.

She said Tuesday that her family was starting an online petition to make the Ride the Duck Boats Branson company “responsible for what they did to my children.”

Coleman and 10 members of her family were on the boat, operated by Ride the Ducks Branson, which sank during a storm July 19, killing 17 people. Coleman’s 13-year-old nephew also survived, as did a dozen others. She lost her husband, three children, and five other relatives.

Talking with reporters Tuesday while surrounded by family members at her house, Coleman said she wants to help prevent other people from a similar loss, one she thinks was preventable.

The accident is the subject of two federal investigations to determine the cause and a state investigation to see whether anyone is criminally liable for what happened.

Coleman said she is still a “mess of emotions” and there is “nothing that can right the wrong because I can’t get (my loved ones) back.”

Fighting back tears, Coleman said her house in Indianapolis is quiet now that her three children and husband aren’t there. “It’s a house now, it’s just not a home anymore,” she said.

Duck boats are amphibious vessels that travel on both land and water and are popular among tourists in major cities. The boats’ history dates to World War II when such vessels were a common sight because of their versatility.

In Branson, they are driven along city streets for part of their tours before the driver uses a ramp to enter the lake and turns the steering wheel over to a captain, who pilots the vessel on the water.

Earlier this month, the administrators of the estates of two members of the Coleman family who died filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages from the operator of the duck boat.

When the vessel started sinking, a canopy trapped the passengers and dragged them to the bottom of the lake, attorney Robert Mongeluzzi told reporters.

The boat sank 40 feet and then rolled to an area 80 feet deep, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said.

The passengers might have survived if the Branson operators had not ignored a 2002 National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that duck boat canopies be removed, Mongeluzzi said.

The lawsuit alleges that Ripley Entertainment, Ride the Ducks International, Ride the Ducks Branson, Herschend Family Entertainment and Amphibious Vehicle Manufacturing knew before the catastrophe that the duck boat industry was “entirely unfit to be used for any purpose and had previously been responsible for dozens of deaths.”

Suzanne Smagala, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, said in a statement: “We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred in Branson and we are supportive of the affected families. The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is still underway and no conclusions have been reached. We cannot comment at this time.”

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill has introduced a bill looking at improving safety regulations for amphibious vessels.

“It’ll take some time before we know exactly what went wrong in Branson, but there’s absolutely no reason to wait to take this commonsense step,” she said two weeks ago.

The measure is Senate Bill 3301.

It would make law the recommendations that were proposed by the NTSB in its 2002 report.

By Steve Almasy and Amanda Watts, CNN

Tia Coleman and 10 of her relatives got on the duck boat to take a tour of Table Rock Lake during their family vacation. Only she and her nephew survived when the boat sank.