Coast Guard, Ripley Entertainment criticized in boat crash

FILE - In this July 23, 2018, file photo, a duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., is raised after it went down the evening of July 19 after a thunderstorm generated near-hurricane strength winds. The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a virtual meeting Tuesday, April 27, 2020, to announce the results of an investigation into the tragedy that killed 17 of the 31 people on board. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP, File)

LIBERTY, Mo. – A duck boat sinking on a Missouri lake that killed 17 people two summers ago likely would not have happened if the U.S. Coast Guard had followed recommendations to improve the safety of such tourist attractions, federal safety regulators said Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board released the findings of its investigation into the July 2018 tragedy, when a Ride the Ducks vehicle sank during a severe and sudden storm on Table Rock Lake near Branson.

If the Coast Guard had followed recommendations for small passenger boats that the NTSB made after a similar boat sank in Arkansas in 1999, killing 13 people, the Missouri boat “likely would not have sunk,” said Brian Young, an NTSB accident investigator.

Young also said the agency’s staff believes Ride the Ducks should have suspended water operations that day because of the severe weather forecast.

Among the files released Tuesday was a letter the NTSB received from the Coast Guard agreeing that canopies and side curtains should be removed from amphibious tour vehicles known as stretch duck boats.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a telephone news conference that although the Coast Guard's recommendations don't have the force of a regulation, he's “very optimistic” the agency is committed to improving small passenger boat safety. Duck boats should not be allowed to operate again until the recommendations are fully implemented, he said.

The NTSB said one probable cause of the accident included the decision by Ripley Entertainment Inc., which purchased the Ride the Ducks attraction in 2017, to operate the lake tours despite a severe thunderstorm warning. The vessel flooded through an air intake hatch on the bow that was not weather tight.

It also blamed the Coast Guard's failure to require sufficient buoyancy in amphibious vehicles, and its failure to address emergency exits on such vehicles with fixed canopies that contributed to the sinking and loss of life. The findings echoed an NTSB report released in November.