Mis­souri tour boat cap­tain in­dicted af­ter sink­ing kills 17

El Dorado News-Times - - Viewpoint -

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The cap­tain of a tourist boat that sank in south­west Mis­souri and killed 17 peo­ple, in­clud­ing nine mem­bers of an In­di­ana fam­ily, didn't tell pas­sen­gers to put on flota­tion de­vices or pre­pare them to aban­don ship even af­ter waves crashed into the boat dur­ing a se­vere storm, ac­cord­ing to an in­dict­ment re­leased Thurs­day.

The fed­eral in­dict­ment shows Ken­neth Scott McKee faces 17 counts of mis­con­duct, neg­li­gence or inat­ten­tion to duty by a ship's of­fi­cer re­sult­ing in death. The deaths oc­curred af­ter the duck boat, a re­fur­bished am­phibi­ous ves­sel orig­i­nally used by the mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II, sank dur­ing a storm in July .

U.S. At­tor­ney Tim Gar­ri­son said the 51-year-old McKee also is ac­cused of fail­ing to prop­erly as­sess the weather be­fore and af­ter the boat went into Ta­ble Rock Lake near Bran­son, a Mid­west­ern tourist town known for coun­try mu­sic shows and en­ter­tain­ment venues.

"This is the be­gin­ning, not the end, of our ef­forts in this mat­ter," Gar­ri­son said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in Spring­field, adding that he couldn't re­lease specifics about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment, the com­pany that op­er­ated the boats and sus­pended the op­er­a­tion fol­low­ing the ac­ci­dent, didn't re­spond to mes­sages from The As­so­ci­ated Press. McKee's at­tor­ney de­clined com­ment.

If con­victed, McKee could face up to 10 years in prison for each count and a fine of $250,000. Gar­ri­son said he ex­pects McKee to sur­ren­der.

Tia Cole­man — whose hus­band, three young chil­dren and five other fam­ily mem­bers died in the sink­ing — re­leased a state­ment Thurs­day say­ing she was pleased an in­dict­ment had been filed. Cole­man was among 14 peo­ple who sur­vived the sink­ing.

"While noth­ing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grate­ful that the U.S. At­tor­ney's Of­fice is fight­ing for jus­tice for my fam­ily, and the other vic­tims, and is com­mit­ted to hold­ing fully ac­count­able all those re­spon­si­ble for this tragedy," Cole­man said.

The other peo­ple killed in­cluded two cou­ples from Mis­souri, an Illi­nois woman who died while sav­ing her grand­daugh­ter's life, an Arkansas fa­ther and son, and a re­tired pas­tor who was the boat's op­er­a­tor on land.

Sev­eral law­suits have been filed on be­half of vic­tims and sur­vivors against Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment and other com­pa­nies in­volved with the man­u­fac­ture and op­er­a­tion of the boats. Robert Mon­geluzzi, an at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Cole­man and sev­eral oth­ers, said he's con­fi­dent the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion will go be­yond McKee.

The U.S. Coast Guard had found prob­a­ble cause that the ac­ci­dent re­sulted from McKee's "mis­con­duct, neg­li­gence, or inat­ten­tion to the du­ties," ac­cord­ing to an Au­gust court fil­ing. The U.S. at­tor­ney's of­fice said the cap­tain of a sec­ond duck boat that safely made it to shore dur­ing the storm acted in a "grossly neg­li­gent man­ner," though the court fil­ing didn't elab­o­rate on those find­ings.

A spokes­woman for Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment has re­peat­edly de­clined to com­ment on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion but has said the com­pany has co­op­er­ated with au­thor­i­ties.

On Thurs­day, Gar­ri­son said McKee vi­o­lated con­di­tions spec­i­fied in the boat's cer­tifi­cate of in­spec­tion by fail­ing to tell pas­sen­gers to put on per­sonal floata­tion de­vices and not im­me­di­ately in­creas­ing speed and driv­ing to the near­est shore, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

The in­dict­ment also al­leges McKee al­lowed the boat's plas­tic side cur­tains to be low­ered, which blocked the ex­its, and didn't in­struct pas­sen­gers to put on flota­tion de­vices or pre­pare them to aban­don ship even af­ter the bilge alarm sounded twice.

The ves­sel first took tourists on a trip through Bran­son, which is about 170 miles north­west of Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas. The am­phibi­ous ve­hi­cle then trav­eled to Ta­ble Rock Lake for a short ex­cur­sion on wa­ter.

Weather was calm when the ves­sel known as a Stretch Duck 7 be­gan its trip on July 19, but in­ves­ti­ga­tors have con­tended that op­er­a­tors had am­ple warn­ing that a strong storm was ap­proach­ing.

The ves­sel's cer­tifi­cate of in­spec­tion is­sued by the Coast Guard in 2017 es­tab­lished rules and lim­i­ta­tions on when it could be on the wa­ter. It states the boat "shall not be op­er­ated wa­ter­borne" when winds ex­ceed 35 mph and/or wave heights ex­ceed 2 feet.

Gar­ri­son said McKee vi­o­lated those lim­i­ta­tions when he put the boat into the lake.

Video and au­dio from the boat, re­cov­ered by divers, showed that the lake was calm when the boat en­tered the wa­ter. But the weather sud­denly turned vi­o­lent. Within min­utes, the boat sank.

The wind speed at the time of the ac­ci­dent was more than 70 mph, just short of hur­ri­cane force, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board. Weather fore­casts had warned of an im­pend­ing storm with winds pos­si­bly ex­ceed­ing 60 mph.

The wave height wasn't known, but cell­phone video shot by pas­sen­gers on a nearby ex­cur­sion boat showed waves that ap­peared to be far greater than 2 feet high.

In ad­di­tion to the weather, the Coast Guard has said it was look­ing into reg­u­la­tory com­pli­ance of the boat and crew mem­ber du­ties and qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

Bran­son is among sev­eral places around the coun­try where the am­phibi­ous ve­hi­cles of­fer ex­cur­sions. Since 1999, 42 deaths have been as­so­ci­ated with duck boat ac­ci­dents .

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