1 year later: An ac­count of the Mis­souri duck boat sinking

The Saline Courier - - NEWS - As­so­ci­ated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The morn­ing of July

19, 2018, had that feel Mid­west­ern­ers are fa­mil­iar with: That still, sticky air hint­ing a stormy day ahead.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice would con­firm it when it is­sued a se­vere thun­der­storm watch for southwest Mis­souri at 11:24 a.m., stretch­ing un­til 9 that evening. About five min­utes later, a weather mon­i­tor­ing ser­vice would share the informatio­n with Bran­son Ride the Ducks, the popular at­trac­tion that took tourists on land and wa­ter.

What hap­pened over the next eight hours will be at the heart of de­ter­min­ing who — if any­one — is re­spon­si­ble for the tragedy that claimed 17 lives that night. But this much is clear: Court doc­u­ments, as well as other re­ports and in­ter­views, when laid side by side, cap­ture a ter­ri­fy­ing night on Ta­ble Rock Lake.

This ac­count is based on a time­line built in law­suits, in­dict­ments, a re­port from the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Boar­dand wit­ness in­ter­views at the time.

At 3 p.m., Charles Baltzell showed up for his shift as Ride the Ducks’ sole man­ager work­ing that night. Baltzell, 77, was de­scribed as an op­er­a­tions su­per­vi­sor and man­ager on duty. That in­volved mak­ing sure the duck boat tours ran on time, act­ing as a dis­patcher to com­mu­ni­cate over hand­held ra­dio with the driv­ers, who steered the ves­sel on land, and cap­tains, who took the helm on wa­ter.

He was also to keep an eye on the weather.

A cou­ple of hours into Baltzell’s shift, a nasty storm was pop­ping up over Bar­ton and Ver­non coun­ties, both along the Mis­souri-kansas bor­der and north of Jo­plin. The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice would is­sue a warn­ing to that ef­fect at 5:06 p.m.

The storm didn’t ap­pear to go un­no­ticed by work­ers at Ride the Ducks. Shortly be­fore 6 p.m., gen­eral man­ager Cur­tis Lan­ham checked on weather radar to try to fig­ure out how far away the storm was and its tim­ing. A duck boat tour was about to start at 6 p.m., and Lan­ham was go­ing on board. Be­fore head­ing out he told Baltzell to keep an eye on the radar, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors.

Around the time the tour was taking off, the storm was mov­ing over Chris­tian and north­ern Stone coun­ties, north­west of Bran­son. The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice said it car­ried winds in ex­cess of 60 miles per hour and told peo­ple they should move to an in­te­rior room of a building, The Kansas City Star re­ported .

The 6 p.m. tour wouldn’t be the last one that day. Just days be­fore, Bran­son Ride the Ducks had added a 6:30 p.m. tour.

As folks read­ied for the last tour of the day, Baltzell checked the weather ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to an in­dict­ment. There was light­ning in Spring­field.

At 6:27 p.m., Ken­neth Mckee, the duck boat cap­tain for the fi­nal tour, stepped on Stretch Duck 07 with a road driver, Robert Williams. The road driver sat be­hind the wheel while Mckee took his place on a side-fac­ing seat to the right.

Ali­cia Den­ni­son, 12, waited to get on Stretch Duck 07 with her grand­mother, Les­lie Den­ni­son of Sher­rard, Illi­nois. They had just got­ten into town in enough time to drop their lug­gage off at the ho­tel and make it to Ride the Ducks for a boat tour.

They would be among 29 pas­sen­gers to get on the boat for the 6:30 p.m. tour. Also on board: a cou­ple from St. Louis, an­other cou­ple from Hig­ginsville, an Arkansas man with his son and daugh­ter. Tia Cole­man of In­di­anapo­lis was with 10 of her rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing her three chil­dren and two neph­ews.

The Cole­man fam­ily, who made an­nual sum­mer trips to­gether, liked the idea of go­ing on the duck boats; Tia’s 9-year-old son, Reece, who was on the autism spec­trum, loved the wa­ter.

Ali­cia Den­ni­son re­called hear­ing an­other pas­sen­ger men­tion a Weather Chan­nel re­port, won­der­ing what it would mean for their up­com­ing tour.

As Mckee read­ied the boat, Baltzell came by and told Mckee and the driver that they should change up the tour, pros­e­cu­tors say in a crim­i­nal in­dict­ment against Mckee, Lan­ham and Baltzell. (Each has pleaded not guilty; Tom Bath, an at­tor­ney for Lan­ham, said the gov­ern­ment’s ac­count is in­com­plete and not ac­cu­rate.)

Do the wa­ter part first, Baltzell told Mckee. There was a storm on the way.

Just be­fore the driver be­gan count­ing pas­sen­gers, the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice is­sued a warn­ing for a large area that in­cluded Ta­ble Rock Lake from 6:32 to 7:30 p.m.

At 6:33 p.m., Mckee be­gan nar­rat­ing the tour, ac­cord­ing to a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board ac­count of the day.

Five min­utes af­ter the tour be­gan, ac­cord­ing to pros­e­cu­tors, Baltzell was get­ting started on clos­ing out the busi­ness for the day — count­ing cash in a first floor room in the Ride the Ducks fa­cil­ity, away from a room where weather screens dis­played informatio­n.

At 6:46 p.m., Baltzell and Lan­ham spoke. They talked about how the last tour of the day was switched up so that it would go on the wa­ter first.

“Good,” Lan­ham said, ac­cord­ing to an in­dict­ment. “It’s dark right now.”

By 6:50 p.m., the duck boat was near the wa­ter ramp and Mckee was go­ing over safety pre­cau­tions.

“Above you are your life jack­ets,” Tia Cole­man re­called Mckee say­ing. He pointed out there were three sizes.

“I’m go­ing to show you where they are,” Mckee said, ac­cord­ing to Cole­man. “But you won’t need them.”

If they needed them, he added, he would let them know.

About this same time, Lan­ham got off the boat from the 6 p.m. tour, where the cap­tain had men­tioned seeing light­ning. He spot­ted a dark thun­der­cloud to the north­west.

At 6:55 p.m., Mckee an­nounced that Stretch

Duck 07 was about to hit the wa­ter, which was calm at that point.

Calm enough that for the next four min­utes, Mckee in­vited a few chil­dren to sit in the cap­tain’s seat.

Also on the lake, Jennie and Jeff Carr were on the Show­boat Bran­son Belle to cel­e­brate 15 years of mar­riage.

But the weather was nag­ging at them. They are close watch­ers of weather re­ports, hav­ing lived through the deadly Jo­plin tor­nado in 2011.

At 7 p.m., five min­utes af­ter the duck boat had pulled away from the en­try ramp and en­tered calm wa­ters, the lead­ing edge of the storm started whip­ping up whitecaps on the lake. Mckee ush­ered the kids away from his cap­tain’s seat and started look­ing for ways to shorten the tour. He was heard telling pas­sen­gers that “they had at­tempted to beat the storm.”

Carr, from the safety of the show­boat, took the video of the duck boat strug­gling against churn­ing wa­ters that would go vi­ral the next day. The lake was start­ing to be­have the way she imag­ined the ocean would look.

She said a prayer as she watched the duck boat get help­lessly bat­tered in the storm with winds ex­ceed­ing 70 miles per hour.

“Oh Lord, please help those peo­ple,” Carr said. “Be with them. Please let them be OK.”

Oth­ers on the Bran­son Belle were notic­ing and gath­ered near the Carrs.

On Stretch Duck 07, it would only take four min­utes af­ter the storm ar­rived for a bilge alarm to sound, sig­nal­ing that the boat was taking on wa­ter.

Ali­cia Den­ni­son reached for a life jacket, but it was stuck. She couldn’t get it free.

Pam Smith of Arkansas later told CBS News that she was shop­ping in Bran­son while her hus­band, Steve, was on the boat tour with their chil­dren, Lance, 15, and Loren, 14. The last time she spoke to her hus­band was be­fore the boat sank.

“It’s not good, Pam,” she re­mem­bered him say­ing.

She asked him to take care of the kids.

On the Bran­son Belle, Carr even­tu­ally stopped record­ing. There wasn’t much she could see; thun­der­clouds dark­ened the lake and in­ten­si­fy­ing rain ob­scured the view. But she didn’t need to see to know what would hap­pen next.

As the storm was churn­ing, Mckee wasn’t talk­ing to the pas­sen­gers.

The pas­sen­gers were pan­ick­ing.

The first call to emer­gency dis­patch­ers ar­rived at 7:09 p.m. The boat had started sinking.

“You need to re­spond to the Bran­son Belle,” a dis­patcher for Stone County said, “for a duck that has sunk.”

The ur­gency and fear can be heard as dis­patch­ers and deputies de­scribe the storm, de­bris swirling in the sum­mer air, their voices cap­tured on Broad­cas­tify.com. They of­ten sound tense and fran­tic as they ra­dio for help.

It’s not clear what Lan­ham and Baltzell, back on land, were up to between the time Stretch Duck 07 hit the wa­ter and when it be­gan to sink to the bot­tom of the lake. Court records say there was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion between them and Mckee dur­ing that time.

Pas­sen­gers were trapped. An over­head canopy was pulling them down. Plas­tic win­dow cur­tains were keep­ing them from es­cap­ing out the side.

“When the wa­ter filled up the boat, I could no longer see,” Tia Cole­man said at a news con­fer­ence two days af­ter the dis­as­ter. “I couldn’t feel any­body, I couldn’t see. I just re­mem­ber, ‘I gotta get out, I gotta get out.’”

Mckee at one point man­aged to re­lease the over­head canopy. For all the mis­takes that led pas­sen­gers into the mid­dle of the tem­pest, that de­ci­sion may have saved some lives.

“They were all stuck in there un­til that top came off,” re­called 15-year-old Gil­lian Keller from Texas, who was with her fa­ther and seven other mem­bers of his fam­ily. They all sur­vived.

Ali­cia Den­ni­son sur­vived, she said, be­cause her grand­mother pushed her to the sur­face. Her grandma did not make it.

Cole­man wasn’t sure how she got out.

“And when I got out into the wa­ter, it was ice cold,” Cole­man said. “And I re­mem­ber as we were go­ing into the wa­ter, they said that the lake stays pretty warm, like in the 80s. So I know for it be­ing so cold that I’m close to the bot­tom, not close to the top.

“And I just re­mem­ber kick­ing and swim­ming, swim­ming up to the top. And as I was swim­ming up, I was pray­ing. I said, ‘Lord, please let me get to my ba­bies.’”

As Cole­man and oth­ers came up for air, pon­toon boats were mak­ing their way out onto the wa­ter to reach the vic­tims.

“There’s a mass ca­su­alty go­ing on by the Bran­son Belle, mul­ti­ple peo­ple in the wa­ter,” a Mis­souri High­way Pa­trol dis­patcher said.

At 7:39 p.m., half an hour af­ter Stretch Duck 07 started sinking, divers be­gan the last-ditch ef­fort to find sur­vivors.

Five min­utes later, the grim news started to emerge.

“We’re go­ing to need the Stone County coro­ner,” said a dis­patcher.

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