The July 19, 2018 Branson Duckboat Tragedy As Seen By One Who Lives Here

Updated on November 28, 2018

I lived in Joplin on that dark day

The monster touched down to earth a mere two miles from where I stood cooking burgers and hot dogs on my grill. By the time I made my way in with a plate full of food, people had died. Together, my family sat beside our hand crank radio listening to reports that came in by a man (I still wish I knew who that was) making his way through the carnage, crying openly as he said the following words:

"Joplin is gone."

From that day to this I have thought about the people lost, lives destroyed and friends I will never see again. Joplin itself is healing, albeit slowly. The town has lost sufficient families and students in the aftermath that the local school applied for and received permission to step down in the sports division as they can no longer pull from a large student body to compete; they are now playing against schools like Carl Junction, Republic and Lamar rather than Kansas City and St Louis.

I mention this because the recent tragedy in Branson, my new home town, will have far reaching repercussions that we cannot see rooted in the present as we currently are. And because that tragedy reminds me of this one my area is facing today.

What happened out there?

I work for Silver Dollar City and was at work on July 19, 2018. I can relate to you honestly what notice the city workers and I received that day.

6:33 PM Notice of a Phase 1 (A thunderstorm is in the area and approaching.)

6:48 PM Phase 2 (A thunderstorm with lightning is approaching, currently @ 20 miles out)

6:53 PM Phase 2B (Storm is now within 5 miles)

Look at the last two times. Look at the distance covered. Five minutes; fifteen miles.

I received notice via my work radio and on my phone in text form so I know these facts to be exact. By the time I made my way up the office area after the Phase 2 alert to get my umbrella, the winds had arrived. By 6:55 PM I was on the city's square attempting to secure the various games and umbrellas set up for our guest's pleasure and comfort. I was unable to lower the umbrellas quick enough and lost several to breakage. I also took down our American Flag in order to keep it from being ripped apart. The winds were clocked at between 70 and 120 mph depending on who you heard on the news that evening. I can assure you: I have NEVER seen winds like that in my 58 years on this planet: never. I have been in a boat on Lake of the Woods when the winds topped 60 knots (around 75 to 80 mph); I have driven a motorhome south from Canada in winds from the west that touched 80 mph and blew me across the interstate as though I was a toy; and I have driven in my own truck in winds over 80 mph in Joplin. The winds last week were far worse than anything I have experienced before, they had to be near the higher number of 100 to 120 mph.

By the way, in the middle of my hanging on for dear life as I brought down our flag a guest approached me to ask where he could smoke. Seriously? Tree branches were flying around, leaves were being stripped from those branches, people were crowding the exit trying to flee and YOU WANT TO SMOKE A CIGARETTE!?!? Dear God...

What happened next

We cleared the park of guests and headed home. For me that meant a short two mile drive down Indian Point to our condo. I walked in to see my wife grilling on our new electric grill on the back deck. To put this into perspective, the winds hit at 6:55 PM; the park cleared and I clocked out by 7:15 PM; I was in my home at 7:25 PM.

The storm had passed. There was virtually no rain where we lived, nothing but the winds and lightning that continued for another hour or so. Standing beside her as she cooked our dinner, we noticed a boat leaving our cove with lights flashing, heading across the lake towards the dam. We didn't know, at that time, what had happened.

Once we turned on the television a few moments later, we learned. Oh God!

The boat, carrying 31 people had sunk in the high winds and huge waves. Waves which were between five and six feet high from the winds having nearly two full miles of open water to build upon before they approached the location of the duck boats and the Branson Belle. Waves that made it difficult for two duck boats to make it to shore, and impossible for one.

Feeling very much like that night seven years ago in Joplin, we sat and watched in a horrified frame of mind as the details were released. First there were six, then seven people in the hospital and six people dead. Later that number began to climb, up to eight. It wasn't until the next morning that the full details came out: seventeen people lost their lives.

And again I was struck by my proximity: two miles away, people had fought and lost the battle to save their lives. Two miles. I can see the dam from our deck and if the land beside us didn't hide the water I could see the Branson Belle from there. Within sight, a mere two miles away. Seventeen people died.

Questions

A family of eleven people lose nine of them. Another family of nine lose none. A teenaged girl loses her brother and father. An elderly couple both perish. And perhaps most heartrending of all, a teenage girl on a fun trip with her grandmother is pushed by that grandmother upwards towards the surface even as she is going deeper in the lake. Her selfless act of love for her granddaughter allows that child to live even as it cost the grandmother her life.

The personnel carrier from World War Two was unable to handle the rough waters and plunged nose first into the waves, going to the bottom of the lake in forty feet of water before rolling on its wheels farther down, eventually landing in eighty feet of water. Some made it out before it went down; some as it was going to the bottom. More than half didn't.

Today they raised the boat from the bottom, secured it on a flatbed trailer and began the trip to Washington, D.C. for the examination by the NTSB. Unfortunately, whatever they find will not help those who perished. But what will they find?

First, was the boat overloaded by 31 people? As I understand it, no. I have been told by reliable sources that the boats can and have handled up to 50 people at a time.

Did the boat lose power? At first I thought this might be the case but after watching the video (it is hard to do, so very hard) I doubt it. I believe what occurred is that the boat was plunging into the waves and took on so much water that it became bow-heavy and simply plunged bow first into the waves, thus taking on so much water that the forward propulsion drove it ever deeper into the water until it went down.

How did some survive? I truly do not know. If they were seated, they would have gone down together. I think some found a way out through the curtains which were in place to attempt to keep the guests dry. I also believe a fair amount of the people who perished did so because they were trapped inside until the boat was too deep to make it back to the surface. The combination of the canopy, the curtains and the downward action of the boat made it virtually impossible to escape alive unless one exited before it went very deep.

Would life jackets have saved more people? This is a tough call. It is possible, yet it is just as possible that people wearing life jackets could have become trapped beneath the canopy, floating against the underside and becoming unable to exit the small windows in time to survive.

Please note: this is simply my observation! I have not ridden a duck boat but have only observed them from a distance of a hundred yards or so. As a matter of fact, on July 15 we celebrated our anniversary on the Branson Belle and I stood on the deck watching duck boats as they made their circuit around the island nearby before making their way back to shore. I never would have dreamed that merely four days later I would be watching this unfold on my television almost within sight of where I live.

What haunts me most about this

What haunts me most about this situation is that this was completely avoidable. Completely. There were two ducks on the launch ramp as I understand it: one with mechanical difficulties and one behind it. Another had just left the ramp and made it back before the storm hit in full force. The one that had trouble waited approximately fifteen minutes until a replacement duck was brought and the people swapped boats. This one also made it back to shore intact but not without great difficulty. The one left waiting on the ramp for the other to launch is the one that sank. So, one question I ask is if the first boat had not had trouble and been replaced would the fifteen minutes have been sufficient to allow both boats to complete their circuit and be at least nearing land if not back on land when the winds struck? I have to say yes (in my opinion).

Additionally, the understanding is that the captains and their pilots knew the storm was approaching because they altered their route. Normally the ducks go through Branson then to the lake: the captains of these boats headed straight for the lake intending to traverse it first then go through Branson. So had they not altered their route would they have been on the lake when the winds struck? Almost certainly no.

Also, the launch ramp is positioned so the boat launches almost exactly in the direction the storm was approaching from. That is to say they should have been able to look straight ahead and see the storm coming. However, I can personally say that this storm had winds so far in advance of the clouds that the clouds might not have been within sight when they launched. It literally took seconds for the winds to hit and inside of a minute or so the lake had waves so high these low-riding duck boats could not have turned around without risking capsizing. Once launched they had no alternative but to forge ahead and hope for the best.

In conclusion...

I believe that had any of several things occurred, or if the order of some events changed these people would have survived. Through such small and meaningless things such as a mechanical issue on another boat, a change of travel, or a longer delay before the replacement boat arrived, seventeen people lost their lives. Virtually an entire family was lost while those who lived are faced with survivor's guilt.

But lost in this tragedy are other innocent victims, victims no one is speaking to or about: the hundred or so employees of the business and their families. It is a great likelihood that the duck's never run again in Branson. The lawsuits will drag on for years, the company possibly bankrupted and those workers and families will have no income, no jobs. Much like Joplin, people may move on, going elsewhere to seek employment. This may well have a trickle down effect on the economy as there will be fewer people buying groceries and gas, fewer children in the schools, fewer homes bought or rented. Is it possible people avoid Branson altogether? Possible. People who would have visited with an eye towards the tourism could possibly go elsewhere because of the event which claimed the lives of seventeen people.

Only time will tell. In the here and now I can only offer my heartfelt condolences to those who are directly and indirectly effected by this tragedy. My prayers are with you and I ask that those who read this to add theirs as well.

© 2018 Mr Archer

Comments

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    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      2 years ago from Central Florida

      Mike, I watched the video of the teenager who survived this tragedy. It's heartbreaking. I can only imagine her terror through all of this.

      Can you explain to me what a duck boat is?

    • Homeplace Series profile image

      William Leverne Smith 

      2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you for sharing your unique perspective on the timing and the winds. Loved (hated) the cigarette episode. Oh, my!!

      Thanks, again. ;-)

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