Chance led Indiana family to fatal duck boat outing
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.”
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.