By Frederick H. Lowe
A boat captain, who didn’t order passengers to put on life preservers as a fierce storm approached that eventually sank the boat and killed 17, including nine members of one family, was indicted Thursday by a grand jury in Springfield, Missouri.
Kenneth Scott McKee, captain of Stretch Duck 7, a duck boat that sank July 19th on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, was charged in a 17-count indictment with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty that resulted in passenger deaths, said Tim Garrison, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. McKee is charged with one count for each of the 17 passengers, including one crew member, who drowned.
Ripley Entertainment Inc. operates duck boat tours in Branson on Table Rock Lake. A duck boat is an amphibious vessel that floats on water and is also outfitted with six tires that enable the vehicle to be driven on land.
“Our entire community was shocked and saddened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last summer,” Garrison said. “Today’s indictment alleges that the misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty by the ship’s captain caused or contributed to the loss of these lives.”
Garrison charged that McKee failed to properly assess incoming weather conditions prior to launching the boat.
“When severe weather, including an increase in wind speed arrived at the boat’s location, McKee failed to instruct passengers to put on life preservers, although the vessel’s bilge alarm, which warns of high water, sounded twice. A bilge pump pumps water out of the boat’s hull to prevent it from sinking.
Tia Coleman, a passenger, who lost nine family members to drowning when the boat sank in 40 feet of water, said McKee told the passengers they did not need to wear their life jackets, which were stored above their seats. The passengers remained seated and did not attempt to put them on apparently believing he would get them safely to shore. The Coleman family was from Indianapolis, Indiana, and they were visiting Branson on their annual family vacation.
As the weather became more violent, McKee failed to immediately increase the boat’s speed and head to safety at the nearest shore, the indictment charged. He also lowered the boat’s plastic side curtains, blocking the exits.
“McKee allegedly failed to prepare to abandon ship even when lake water was above the boat’s waterline, reaching the upper deck. When water is that high, it floods the ship, causing it sink.
The boat sank in 40 feet of water before settling at the lake’s bottom 80 feet below.
McKee faces up to 10 years in prison without parole for each one of the 17 counts with which he has been charged if he is convicted. He will also be required to pay a $250,000 fine, Garrison said.
Ripley Entertainment also faces a number of lawsuits filed by the drowning victims’ families.