Cap­tain of duck boat is in­dicted in tragedy

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY LAURA BAUER, JUDY L. THOMAS AND STEVE VOCKRODT lbauer@kc­star.com jthomas@kc­star.com svock­rodt@kc­star.com

A fed­eral grand jury has charged the cap­tain of a duck boat that sank on Ta­ble Rock Lake with mis­con­duct, neg­li­gence and inat­ten­tion to duty in con­nec­tion with the tragedy that claimed 17 lives.

Ken­neth Scott McKee, who cap­tained the Stretch Duck 7 boat on July 19 for Ride the Ducks in Bran­son, is ac­cused of a litany of vi­o­la­tions of fed­eral law over­see­ing boat cap­tains, in­clud­ing:

Not prop­erly as­sess­ing in­com­ing weather be­fore tak­ing the boat out on wa­ter;

Op­er­at­ing the boat in con­di­tions that vi­o­late the U.S. Coast Guard’s cer­tifi­cate of in­spec­tion;

Not telling pas­sen­gers to use flota­tion de­vices;

Not speed­ing up to head to the near­est shore as se­vere weather ap­proached;

Fail­ing to raise the side cur­tains of the boat when its bilge alarm sounded as it took on wa­ter.

“The cap­tain of the ves­sel al­ways has a duty to op­er­ate his ves­sel in a safe man­ner,” said Ti­mothy Gar­ri­son, the U.S. at­tor­ney for the west­ern dis­trict of Mis­souri, at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day morn­ing in Spring­field. “That’s why Mr. McKee is un­der in­dict­ment this morn­ing.”

Gar­ri­son said the en­tire com­mu­nity was “shocked and sad­dened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last sum­mer.”

“To­day’s in­dict­ment al­leges that the mis­con­duct, neg­li­gence and inat­ten­tion to duty by the ship’s cap­tain caused or con­trib­uted to the loss of those lives.”

If con­victed, McKee faces a

max­i­mum sen­tence of 10 years in fed­eral prison with­out pa­role on each count, plus a fine of $250,000.

McKee’s at­tor­ney, J.R. Hobbs, said he was re­view­ing the in­dict­ment, work­ing with the court to sched­ule a bond hear­ing and ar­raign­ment and an­tic­i­pates his client will en­ter a not guilty plea.

A spokes­woman for Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment, which owns the Ride the Ducks op­er­a­tion in Bran­son, did not pro­vide a com­ment. The com­pany has re­peat­edly said it can­not com­ment on the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion and that it is fully co­op­er­at­ing with au­thor­i­ties.

Jef­frey Good­man, a lawyer rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral vic­tims in civil law­suits against Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment and other de­fen­dants, said the in­dict­ment “high­lights the out­ra­geous­ness of the de­ci­sion to op­er­ate the death-trap duck boat in an ap­par­ent at­tempt to beat a widely and ac­cu­rately fore­casted storm. Our clients fully sup­port to­day’s ac­tion and the con­tin­u­ing work of the pros­e­cu­tors to pun­ish the in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies in­volved.”

The daugh­ter of vic­tim Wil­liam Asher, 69, of St. Louis, said she and her sib­lings were re­lieved to learn about the in­dict­ment.

“While it is tough to be re­minded of the tragic or­deal, my brother, sis­ter and I be­lieve the gov­ern­ment is tak­ing its re­spon­si­bil­ity se­ri­ously to pro­tect the pub­lic from these dan­ger­ous boats,” said Jen­nifer Asher, in a state­ment is­sued Thurs­day. “My fam­ily does not want any­one to ex­pe­ri­ence this sort of tragedy ever again. We be­lieve there is more than one per­son re­spon­si­ble for the reck­less de­ci­sion to put the boat on the wa­ter that day. We be­lieve the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion and ap­pre­ci­ate the gov­ern­ment’s ef­fort in seek­ing jus­tice for our dad.”

McKee, 51, of Verona, Mo., had been iden­ti­fied as a tar­get of the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion in an ear­lier court fil­ing by the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice. He was one of 31 peo­ple on the boat and among the 14 who sur­vived. The vic­tims in­cluded the boat’s driver, 73-year-old Robert “Bob” Wil­liams, a re­tired pas­tor who was re­spon­si­ble for op­er­at­ing the ve­hi­cle on land.

Of the 17 dead, nine were from one In­di­anapo­lis fam­ily. The other vic­tims in­cluded cou­ples from Hig­ginsville, Mo., and St. Louis; an Illi­nois woman who was tak­ing her grand­daugh­ter on a spe­cial trip to Bran­son; and a fa­ther and son from Arkansas. Seven other pas­sen­gers were in­jured, in­clud­ing a 13-year-old boy and his aunt who were rel­a­tives of the nine fam­ily mem­bers who died.

Thurs­day’s in­dict­ment is the first crim­i­nal charge aris­ing from the Ta­ble Rock Lake catas­tro­phe. Gar­ri­son said he could not com­ment on whether there would be ad­di­tional in­dict­ments, but said the grand jury is con­tin­u­ing to meet pe­ri­od­i­cally on the case.

“This in­dict­ment rep­re­sents the be­gin­ning, and not the end, of our ef­forts in this mat­ter,” Gar­ri­son said. “We’re strongly com­mit­ted to bring­ing this in­ves­ti­ga­tion to a con­clu­sion as quickly as we can with­out sac­ri­fic­ing or com­pro­mis­ing the in­tegrity of this in­ves­ti­ga­tion. We owe that to the vic­tims and the sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers of this tragedy. We also owe that to the pub­lic, which has an im­por­tant in­ter­est in see­ing that this statute is en­forced.”

He added that he has spo­ken with the fam­i­lies. “We are in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them.”

The boat tour was ini­tially set to be­gin on land that July night, which was its usual course. Tick­ets for the tour said it would start at 6:30 p.m.

Be­fore the first pas­sen­gers boarded, an in­di­vid­ual stepped onto the back of the boat at 6:28 p.m. and told the crew to con­duct the wa­ter por­tion of the tour first, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board said.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice is­sued a se­vere thun­der­storm warn­ing at 6:32 p.m., specif­i­cally nam­ing Ta­ble Rock Lake. The warn­ing said winds in ex­cess of 60 mph were pos­si­ble. In re­al­ity, winds on the lake reached 73 mph — near hur­ri­cane force — with waves top­ping three feet.

When the boat started its wa­ter tour at 6:55 p.m. the lake ap­peared calm. Around that time, emer­gency crews in Taney County be­gan re­spond­ing to calls about top­pled trees and downed power lines caused by the storm.

Just af­ter 7 p.m., winds in­creased and white­caps were vis­i­ble on the wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to an ini­tial re­port re­leased by the NTSB. Less than a minute later, the cap­tain of the Ride the Ducks boat made a com­ment about the storm, the NTSB re­port said, with­out fur­ther ex­pla­na­tion.

In Au­gust, The Star ob­tained a copy of a copy of Stretch Duck 07’s Cer­tifi­cate of In­spec­tion, which sets con­di­tions un­der which the ves­sel can op­er­ate. Those in­clude the num­ber of pas­sen­gers, weather and use of life pre­servers. The Bran­son boat’s cer­tifi­cate set strin­gent guide­lines for wind and wa­ter con­di­tions.

Ac­cord­ing to the cer­tifi­cate of in­spec­tion, the com­pany vi­o­lated lim­i­ta­tions

‘‘ THIS IN­DICT­MENT REP­RE­SENTS THE BE­GIN­NING, AND NOT THE END, OF OUR EF­FORTS IN THIS MAT­TER. Ti­mothy Gar­ri­son, the U.S. at­tor­ney for the west­ern dis­trict of Mis­souri

put in place for se­vere weather.

“Ves­sel shall not be op­er­ated wa­ter­borne when winds ex­ceed 35 mph, and/or the wave height ex­ceeds two feet,” said the cer­tifi­cate, which was is­sued in Fe­bru­ary 2017.

Yet the duck boat owned by Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment en­tered the lake 23 min­utes af­ter the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice is­sued the se­vere thun­der­storm warn­ing for the area. That alert in­cluded Ta­ble Rock Lake and warned of winds in ex­cess of 60 mph.

Ri­p­ley En­ter­tain­ment pur­chased Ride the Ducks Bran­son from Her­schend Fam­ily En­ter­tain­ment in De­cem­ber 2017. The tour boats, which ran on Ta­ble Rock Lake and Lake Tan­ey­como, have not been op­er­at­ing in Bran­son since the tragedy.

This week, The Star re­ported about con­cerns with the duck boat’s bilge pumps that are de­signed to dis­charge wa­ter from the bot­tom of a flood­ing ves­sel. It found that a pow­er­ful me­chan­i­cal de­vice called a Hig­gins pump, ca­pable of ex­tract­ing up to 250 gal­lons of wa­ter per minute, had been re­moved from Stretch Duck 07 prior to the tragedy and re­placed with elec­tric bilge pumps with less ca­pac­ity.

Ri­p­ley would not say what the ca­pac­ity of those re­place­ment pumps was, but The Star ex­am­ined dozens of duck boat inspections con­ducted by the Coast Guard and found ref­er­ences to other Hig­gins pumps that had been re­placed in re­cent years with elec­tric bilge pumps. Those pumps were ca­pable of ex­tract­ing just 20 gal­lons of wa­ter or less per minute — or less than one-tenth the pump­ing ca­pac­ity of a Hig­gins.

A Florida ma­rine safety ex­pert said he wasn’t sur­prised that Thurs­day’s charges fo­cused on the boat’s cap­tain. “The cap­tain is the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion-maker,” said Jim Allen, who served 30 years in the Coast Guard and has spent more than two decades as a safety con­sul­tant. “Once that thing is un­der­way, he has the ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity for the safety and wel­fare of the ves­sel and the peo­ple. Even if the com­pany tells him to go, he could say, ‘No, I’m not go­ing.’”

Allen said it was “a shame” that McKee didn’t or­der pas­sen­gers to put on life jack­ets when the storm moved in.

“Any time the weather gets rough, you should have your pas­sen­gers put on life jack­ets,” he said. “Then they’d at least have had a chance. It’s just a to­tal lack of sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. All the warn­ing signs that ex­isted, he ig­nored them.”

Allen said Ri­p­ley could share some of the blame.

“Did the com­pany pro­vide proper train­ing?” he said. “What kind of li­cense did the cap­tain have? Was he that fa­mil­iar with the duck ves­sels? So many ques­tions come into play, but it’s hard to say with­out all the facts.”

Allen said it’s pos­si­ble that the duck boat cap­tains de­pended solely on Ri­p­ley to alert them about bad weather. “He might have a de­fense there if he says, ‘Well, they keep me ad­vised what the weather is, and I just as­sumed there was ad­e­quate time to make this trip be­fore the storm got here,’” he said. “It’s a flimsy ex­cuse, but it’s an ex­cuse.”

AN­DREW JANSEN AP

Ti­mothy Gar­ri­son, the U.S. at­tor­ney for the west­ern dis­trict of Mis­souri, said at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day morn­ing in Spring­field that “the cap­tain of the ves­sel al­ways has a duty to op­er­ate his ves­sel in a safe man­ner.”

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