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Grand jury indicts captain of tourist boat in Missouri

Charges have been filed against the captain of a Missouri tourist boat that sank and killed 17 people, including nine people from an Indiana family, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

A federal indictment shows 51-year-old Kenneth Scott McKee is facing 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship’s officer resulting in death. The July accident occurred when an amphibious vessel known as a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake when a sudden and severe storm rolled into the area. The boats were originally designed for military use in World War II but had been refurbished as a tourist attraction.

McKee is accused of not properly assessing the weather before or after the boat went on the lake near the tourist town of Branson, U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said during a news conference in Springfield. Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats, suspended operations following the accident.

The U.S. Coast Guard found probable cause that the accident “resulted from the misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties” by the boat’s captain, Kenneth McKee, according to an August court filing. The U.S. attorney’s office added that 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.

The sinking killed nine members of Tia Coleman’s family, including her three young children and husband, who were vacationing from Indiana. 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 their survivors.

The duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., is raised Monday, July 23, 2018. The boat went down Thursday evening after a thunderstorm generated near-hurricane strength winds. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP)

The duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., is raised Monday, July 23, 2018. The boat went down Thursday evening after a thunderstorm generated near-hurricane strength winds. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP)

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

Garrison said McKee violated conditions specified in the boat’s certificate of inspection by failing to tell passengers to put on personal flotation 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 vessels first take tourists on a trip through Branson, before heading 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, although 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.

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

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, although 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.

On May 1, 1999, 13 people died when the Miss Majestic duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 2015, five college students died and more than 70 people were hurt when a duck boat veered into a charter bus on a bridge in Seattle. Two Hungarian tourists died in 2010 when a stalled duck boat was struck by a tugboat-guided barge on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

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