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Missouri duck boat accident leaves 17 dead, including 9 family members

Last Updated Jul 20, 2018 8:03 PM EDT

Nine of the 17 people who died in a duck boat accident were from the same family, a spokesperson for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Friday. Another two members of the same family survived when the boat capsized on Table Rock Lake near the tourist town of Branson, the spokesperson said. Officials have not yet identified the victims.

In their initial assessment, authorities blamed severe thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength. A full investigation was underway.

The boat was carrying 29 passengers and two crew members on a pleasure cruise, and everyone aboard had been accounted for by midday Friday. Seven of the 14 survivors were hurt when the vessel went down. At least two were hospitalized in critical condition. The captain survived, authorities said.

The weather service station in Springfield, about 40 miles north of Branson, issued a severe thunderstorm watch for its immediate area Thursday, saying conditions were ripe for winds of 70 mph. It followed up at 6:32 p.m. with a severe thunderstorm warning for three counties that included Branson and the lake. The warning mentioned both locations. The boat went down about 40 minutes later, shortly after 7 p.m. Nine minutes later, 911 received the first call for help.

"When we issue a warning, it means take action," meteorologist Kelsey Angle said.

Jim Pattison Jr., the president of Ripley Entertainment, which owns the duck boat tour company involved in the incident, told "CBS This Morning" on Friday the boat "shouldn't have been in the water."

"I don't have all the details, but to answer your question, no, it shouldn't have been in the water if, if what happened, happened," he said when asked why the tour continued in such rough conditions.

Pattison said the duck boat had life jackets onboard but Missouri law doesn't require people to wear them.

"Usually the lake is very placid, and it's not a long tour," Pattison said. "They go in and kind of around an island and back, and we had other boats in the water earlier, and it had been a very sort of calm experience up until this came very suddenly."

Mayor Karen Best identified the crew member driving the boat as Bob Williams, known informally as "Captain Bob," and said he was a great ambassador for the city. "He was at every event. He knew everyone. He was always promoting Branson," she said.

Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.

Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus. Thirteen people died in 1999 when a boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas.

"Duck boats are death traps," said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. "They're not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat."

Safety advocates have sought improvements and complained that too many agencies regulate the boats with varying safety requirements. The boats were originally designed for the military, specifically to transport troops and supplies in World War II. They were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.

Divers quickly located the vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lake bed, and authorities planned to recover it later Friday.

Missouri Boat Accident

The boat sank in 40 feet of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 80 feet of water. Investigators had no information about whether passengers were wearing life jackets or whether they were stowed aboard, the sheriff said.

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) planned to help with the investigation.

Branson, about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City, is a country-themed tourist mecca built on a reputation for patriotic and religious-themed shows in numerous theaters. Table Rock Lake, east of Branson, was created in the late 1950s when the Corps of Army Engineers built a dam across the White River to provide hydroelectric power to the Ozarks.

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