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Efforts grows to shut down duck boats after tragedy

The call to shut down Duck Boat tours is louder after the fatal sinking of one of the amphibious vehicles took 17 lives in Missouri a week ago.

A petition drive was launched this week by a social networking website called “Care 2” demanding the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Coast Guard stop duck boat tours immediately.

“How many more people must die before the government takes real action?” reads a portion of the Care 2 webpage devoted to Duck Boat action.  Another portion refers to the vehicles as “death traps”.

Reasoning for what caused the mass death toll on Table Rock Lake near Branson has evolved since the tragedy last Thursday.  Originally there was outrage when it became known that none of the passengers were wearing life vests as the boats are equipped with the gear.  More recently, design flaws and the canopy roofs on the Duck Boats are being blamed for causing the fatalities.

Attorney Andrew Duffy secured a $17 million settlement for the families of two Hungarian tourists killed in a Duck Boat incident in Philadelphia.  He says life vests are no help when the vehicles start sinking.  “You drown if you do and you drown if you don’t when it comes to the decision as to whether or not to use life jackets,” said Duffy.  “Life jackets and their buoyancy pushes you straight up into the canopy as the canopy acts to pull you down.”

The NTSB released a report in 2002 on the Miss Majestic duck boat that sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1999, killing 13 out of 21 passengers.  It blamed the death toll on the vehicle’s lack of adequate buoyancy that would have allowed it to remain afloat in a flooded condition, as well as a shortage of adequate oversight by the Coast Guard, and a canopy roof that tends to entrap passengers within the sinking vehicle.

Duffy says the Duck Boat operators are responsible for the latest tragedy because they refused to address safety concerns after the Arkansas mishap.

“The Duck Boat industry responded, saying ‘Oh, we would have to completely redesign these boats, we can’t do that,’ so they didn’t do anything,” said Duffy.  “That’s atrocious. It’s appalling.  And it directly caused the death of 17 people in Branson.”

According to Duffy’s law firm, Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, at least 43 people have died in Duck Boat accidents in the United States since 1999.

Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall has called for a permanent ban on Duck Boats because there’s no effective oversight of their operations. Since the vehicles function as both a bus while on the street and a boat while on the water, regulation over them is divided between the Coast Guard and the NTSB.

Hall points out that the Coast Guard lacks resources to provide oversight of duck boat safety and no party, including government, has taken enough action after NTSB recommendations.  “As we see many times when there’s no one person responsible when there are several groups responsible, then, unfortunately, in many times, no one’s responsible,” Hall told KMBC last Sunday.

Attorney Duffy contends Duck Boats also present a safety problem because there is no uniform design standard or specifications for manufacturing the vehicles.

Some Duck Boat operators claim they have the original DUKW (Duck) amphibious trucks that were used by the military in the 1940’s during World War II.  Other operators have modified the original design to create “stretch ducks” that are longer and carry more passengers.

The Coast Guard has compiled 12 “Incident Investigation Reports” involving “passenger” “inspected” stretch ducks since 2013. All of them have involved an equipment or propulsion failure or a loss of steering.  10 of them involved stretch ducks operated by Ride the Ducks International or Ripley Entertainment on Table Rock Lake.  Ripley Entertainment purchased the Table Rock operation late last year.

The most recent Coast Guard report involving a Table Rock Lake incident, titled “Stretch Boat 25 Loss of Steering”, was completed June 4th of this year.

Another report involving a DUKW, an amphibious passenger vehicle in Philadelphia said the vessel took a 3-to-4-foot wave over the bow that led to an engine failure because water entered the open hood of the engine compartment.

It’s not yet known if last Thursday’s mishap on Table Rock Lake involved an engine failure. In that case, Stretch Boat 7 is estimated to have taken 4-foot waves during hurricane force winds.  Duffy says a major issue with the incident on Table Rock Lake will be whether the “bilge” pumps that are supposed pump out water as it comes in were working.

“As you can see from that horrific video in Missouri, that water was coming in fast,” Duffy said.  “And the pumps weren’t able to get it out.  There’s going to be major questions about whether the pumps were working.”

The Philadelphia attorney thinks the lack of reserve buoyancy to keep the boats afloat when flooded and canopy roofs that keep passengers trapped in when sinking are the biggest flaws with the vehicles. But he also contends the Duck Boat industry has been irresponsible in creating a carefree, happy-go-lucky atmosphere at the expense of safety.

“Safety should be first and foremost in everybody’s mind,” said Duffy.  “One of our major criticisms of the duck boat industry is their culture has become too fun and games to the detriment of safety.  And unfortunately, we’re seeing that with the growing death toll.”

Duffy said he applauds Missouri elected officeholders who have spoken out about the Table Rock tragedy, especially Senator Claire McCaskill, who referred to Duck Boats as “sinking coffins” on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Ripley Entertainment was contacted for comment on the incident involving its Duck Boat in Table Rock Lake.  A spokesperson said the company’s website is “all we can offer at this point.”  Ripley is offering to assist impacted families with expenses.