Chance led In­di­ana fam­ily to fa­tal duck boat out­ing

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY KRISTINE PHILLIPS AND REECE RISTAU Wash­ing­ton Post

The Cole­man fam­ily had ini­tially thought of go­ing on a va­ca­tion to Florida for their an­nual trip, but the drive was too long for some of the el­derly rel­a­tives. They set­tled on go­ing to Bran­son, a south­west­ern Mis­souri town about seven hours away from their home­town of In­di­anapo­lis. They rented a van and on Tues­day, the fam­ily of 11 from three gen­er­a­tions headed out for what would be their last va­ca­tion to­gether.

The trip to this small re­sort town turned fa­tal just two days later, af­ter they got on one of the am­phibi­ous ve­hi­cles for what should have been a 70minute guided tour around the Ozarks. The boat strug­gled against the tur­bu­lent waves on Table Rock Lake, a nor­mally placid body of wa­ter churned by a vi­o­lent thun­der­storm. The ve­hi­cle took on wa­ter, cap­sized and sank, set­tling at the bot­tom, tak­ing 17 lives with it.

Of those 17 vic­tims, nine were mem­bers of the Cole­man fam­ily, the youngest a 1-year-old girl. Only two of the Cole­man group on the boat sur­vived, Tia Cole­man and her 13-year-old nephew, Dono­van.

Tia Cole­man’s hus­band and all of her three chil­dren died.

“You don’t know how many times I wished they would’ve went to Florida,” said Carolyn Cole­man, whose hus­band, Gary, lost two brothers, nieces and neph­ews in the ac­ci­dent.

On Fri­day night, Carolyn, who lives in Ge­or­gia, said she called Tia while she was re­cov­er­ing at a hospi­tal in Bran­son. Tia’s voice was calm on the phone, and Carolyn as­sumed she was prob­a­bly still in shock, as if the weight of her loss had yet to take its toll.

“I asked her what was their last words. … She said all she could hear and say was, ‘Grab the babies!’ And that was it. They got one group of waves and then they got a sec­ond one, and that’s when the boat started to sink,” Carolyn Cole­man said.

In to­tal, 14 peo­ple sur­vived – less than half the boat’s pas­sen­gers and crew – on Thurs­day even­ing.

The tragedy was a sud­den depar­ture from what had been, for many, a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day in the Mid­west re­treat. Dark clouds, whip­ping winds and heavy rains had abruptly turned a rou­tine tour into a dis­as­ter for 29 pas­sen­gers and two crew mem­bers.

“Bran­son is a city of smiles,” city spokes­woman Melody Pet­tit said Fri­day af­ter­noon as she left Bran­son City Hall, where staffers were clean­ing up left­over food and wa­ter do­na­tions for the vic­tims. “Right now, we’re hurt­ing and we’re not smil­ing.”

Santino To­masetti ar­rived at the Show­boat Bran­son Belle, a river­boat restau­rant not far from where the boat sank, just as first re­spon­ders were pulling peo­ple out of the wa­ter. Those who made it to shore were shiv­er­ing, in shock, drained – and To­masetti scur­ried to get dry cloth­ing and chairs so paramedics could ex­am­ine them. It was then, he said, that re­al­ity started to hit them.

“There were a lot of peo­ple who just, the sec­ond they had a minute to calm down, they were cry­ing. They were start­ing to panic,” To­masetti said, not­ing that he wanted to help in any way pos­si­ble. “When tourists come to Bran­son, they’re our fam­ily and we want to take care of our fam­ily.”

On Fri­day night, hun­dreds of com­mu­nity mem­bers and tourists lit can­dles, prayed and sang for the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, gath­er­ing out­side the of­fice of Ride The Ducks Bran­son, the com­pany that owned and op­er­ated the boat. To­masetti stood in the front of the crowd, the vic­tims’ loved ones, all in tears, em­brac­ing him. Out­side the of­fice were the cars that the vic­tims had left be­fore they boarded the boat. Josh Daniel, who lives nearby, placed one flower on each car ear­lier that day.

“It broke us all,” he said. The cars later were cov­ered with flow­ers, teddy bears, bal­loons and hand­writ­ten signs. Daniel Scott took a knee as he placed one hand against the pas­sen­ger-side door of a white SUV and prayed.

Soon, the crowd broke into song amid snif­fles and sobs: “Amaz­ing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “It is Well With My Soul.”

CHAR­LIE RIEDEL AP

Mal­lory Cun­ning­ham, from left, Santino To­masetti and Aubrey Reece at­tend a can­dle­light vigil Fri­day in the park­ing lot of Ride the Ducks in Bran­son, Mo. A duck boat cap­sized Thurs­day, killing 17.

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