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PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) — The country-and-western tourist town of Branson, Missouri, mourned Friday for more than a dozen sightseers who were killed when a duck boat capsized and sank in stormy weather in the deadliest such accident in almost two decades.
Divers found four more bodies in Table Rock Lake, bringing the death toll to 17, including nine people from the same family and the crew member who was driving the amphibious boat. In their initial assessment, authorities blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength. A full investigation was underway.
“Branson is a city full of smiles,” Mayor Karen Best said. “We have so much fun here. But today we are grieving and crying.”
In Pittsburgh, the tragedy was on the minds of passengers at Just Ducky Tours in Station Square. The boats are a familiar site, operating in the city for 21 years, with two million served. On a busy day they transport up to 1,600 passengers.
Jordan Carter and wife, Marcia Avila, visiting from San Francisco, booked a trip on one of the vehicles as part of their trip. But they had questions after the boat capsized outside Branson.
“Why wasn’t there any life jackets? Was there any? Do you have any?” Avila said.
KDKA’s Pam Surano Reports:
Just Ducky Tours co-owner/operator Christopher D’Addario was on hand to answer safety questions and weather concerns.
“We are always in possession of really good information, the quickness of the river flow, the height of the rivers,” he said.
D’Addario, also a captain, explained the process his fleet of eight duck boats operates under in the port of Pittsburgh. Working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Corps. of Engineers, they constantly maintain communication about weather.
“That’s a determining factor daily for us to monitor what’s happening now on our waterways,” he said.
Even though the fleet rides the three rivers, and not the deeper waters of a lake, the duck boats are always 250 feet from the banks, and a captain and first mate are both always on board.
They say safety vests do not need to be worn, but they’re on board.
“And those vests are out and visible. One for every child and adult on board,” D’Addario said.
Thirty adult, 30 child and even two infant vests are aboard every vessel.
Pittsburgh’s fleet was among the first in the U.S., and are among the original built military Army Ducks used during World War I and World War II. It remains to be seen if the newer generation of duck boats are similar in name only, and not in might and seaworthiness.
Back in Missouri, the risk of heavy weather was apparent hours before the boat left shore.
The weather service station in Springfield, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) 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.
“When we issue a warning, it means take action,” meteorologist Kelsey Angle said.
Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said the company was assisting authorities. She said this was the company’s only accident in more than 40 years of operation.
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.
Authorities had not publicly identified the dead but said they included a 1-year-old child.
“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. In water, they take on water easily, they sink easily. Once they sink, there is a canopy fixed to the top that, unlike other boats in the world, pulls the passengers with it towards the bottom of the lake.”
Divers quickly located the vessel, which came to rest on its wheels on the lakebed, and authorities planned to recover it later Friday.
The boat sank in 40 feet (12 meters) of water and then rolled on its wheels into a deeper area with 80 feet (25 meters) of water. Investigators had no information about whether passengers were wearing life jackets or whether they were stowed onboard, the sheriff said.
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board planned to help with the investigation.
Branson, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) 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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