BRANSON, M0. - It had been a nice summer day here in the Ozarks, and the duck boat filled with sightseers was coasting through a calm Table Rock Lake. Then the wind began to pick up and the water started to churn as a powerful thunderstorm crashed through.
Rain pummeled the amphibious boat, waves tossed it like a toy, its canopy fluttering in 65 mph gusts, its bow thrusting through whitecaps. As it struggled toward its dock to take 29 passengers and a two-member crew to safety, it was overwhelmed. Gripping video footage from the lake showed the boat seesawing and lurching in unrelenting waves. Before long, the small, flat-bottomed half-boat, half-bus capsized and sank, plunging to the bottom of the lake, killing more than half of the people aboard.
By the end of the day Friday, authorities had recovered the bodies of 17, a list of victims that crossed generations, ranging from 1 to 70 years old, many of whom were out of state visitors - including nine members of a single family. Authorities said the captain survived while the boat's driver was killed. Branson Mayor Karen Best identified the driver as Robert "Bob" Williams, of Branson.
Duck boats are a popular tourist attraction in cities across the country, allowing passengers to sightsee by land and water in the same vehicle. The boat here, near this resort town in southwest Missouri, had been on a regular tour around Table Rock. Though Table Rock Lake is normally placid, some authorities and experts said Friday that it is unclear why operators did not heed forecasts and warnings that the potentially violent storm was approaching.
Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader told reporters that he believed the boat - which he said was one of two duck boats still operating on the lake during the storm - sank due to the weather. When asked Friday if he believes operator or design error played a role in the tragedy, Rader declined to answer. The second boat made it back to the dock safely.
Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, which owns the boat operation, said Friday it appeared to be "a fast-moving storm" that hit an otherwise placid lake, saying that some of the company's other boats had been in the water earlier in the day. But he acknowledged that the boat should not have been out.
"We're absolutely devastated," Pattison said. "Our hearts just really go out to everybody, and it's just something that is very sad."
Suzanne Smagala, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, said that the company later became aware of the severe weather alert that had been issued before the storm and that boat captains receive weather alerts by email or text message. "However, we don't know if the captain received it" on Thursday night, she said.
"When the weather picked up, the captain turned it around," she added. The boat was heading toward the shore when it capsized.
Though tourists might have known generally that thunderstorms were expected sometime Thursday, meteorologists had been tracking the storm for hours, and their forecasts offered considerable lead time. The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm watch at 11:20 a.m., nearly eight hours before the storm struck, and at that time, it predicted "widespread damaging winds likely with isolated significant gusts to 75 mph possible."
The Weather Service then issued a severe thunderstorm warning - indicating a violent storm was imminent - at 6:32 p.m., about 30 minutes before police were called about the boat capsizing.
Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society and a professor at the University of Georgia, tweeted that the "tragedy was completely preventable."
"This is not 1901," he wrote. "We have satellites, advanced radars, good weather models, all short-term weather information showed that storms approaching well before the boat was on the water."
Authorities said they expected to recover the sunken boat late Friday from its resting place beneath 80 feet of water. Rader said the boat had landed in about 40 feet of water before rolling down to a deeper point and ending up sitting on its wheels. Authorities expect to recover the boat later Friday.
"It's going to take time to know the details of everything that occurred," Gov. Mike Parson, R, said at a news briefing Friday, noting that the sprawling investigation had just gotten underway. "Until that investigation is completed, I don't think it's my place or anyone's place to speculate all the things that could have happened or why they happened."
The duck boat that sank on Thursday was owned by Ride the Ducks Branson, a tourism company that takes people on tours of the Ozarks through land and water using the amphibious vehicles. Ride the Ducks is a national duck tour operator with locations across the United States, and the Branson operation was purchased last year by Ripley Entertainment, according to Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley.
Smagala said the boat tragedy was the first accident involving the duck boats in Branson. The company has been operating in the city for 40 years and is "a staple of Branson," Smagala said.
"We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred this evening at Ride The Ducks Branson," she said. "This incident has deeply affected all of us. We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved."
Federal investigators also headed to the scene to join state and local officials, with the National Transportation Safety Board dispatching a "Go Team" to the lake to help probe the latest disaster involving duck boats, which have been involved in several fatal accidents in water and on land. Thirteen people died in 1999 when a duck boat took on water and sank while touring Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The NTSB found that when the boat was converted for tourism, it was not given enough built-in buoyancy to stay afloat if flooded. Just seven minutes after that boat entered the lake, it sank in 60 feet of water.
In 2015, a Ride the Ducks boat crashed into a charter bus on the Aurora Bridge in Seattle; five college students were killed and dozens of people were injured. Ride the Ducks International LLC agreed the following year to pay $1 million for violating federal safety regulations, according to the Seattle Times.
Two passengers on a duck boat were killed in 2010 near Philadelphia when a barge collided with the smaller vessel. The NTSB later determined that the accident - which also caused the duck boat to sink - occurred because the person guiding the larger ship was distracted and focused on his cellphone, though federal investigators also criticized the duck boat's operator, Ride the Ducks, for actions they said contributed to the accident.
The duck boats in Branson are a popular feature among tourists and locals alike, said Best, the mayor. She said she couldn't recall previous issues with the two companies that have operated the boats in the 16 years she has lived in Branson.
"The duck boats are such a great asset to our community," she said. "As a local, I've ridden in them I can't tell you how many times."
Many tourists riding similar boats in the District of Columbia on Friday were undeterred by news of the fatal event in Missouri, viewing it as an isolated occurrence.
As a fleet of boats operated by DC Ducks filed into Union Station on Friday afternoon, the Valdonedo family disembarked with wide smiles. The vacationers from Panama planned to stay in the nation's capital for a week, and they said they had no intention of changing their plans to ride the duck boat.
"One random accident doesn't mean they're a bad company," said Gabby Valdonedo, 25. "It's a good way to see the city."
Her sister, Monique Valdonedo, 19, added that duck boats are "way more fun than going down the Metro."
Branson, near the Arkansas border, is a destination for country and live-music fans, with many acts covering Elvis, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton standards. Its main boulevard includes Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction, and Silver Dollar City, an 1800s-themed amusement park. Best, who is in her second term in office, said the city has about 10,000 residents and welcomes more than 8 million visitors yearly; July is one of its busiest months.
Best and her staff prepared Branson City Hall as a refuge for those waiting for news of their loved ones, and the city brought in certified grief counselors. Best said she saw one of the grief counselors take wet socks from a young man and dry them with the bathroom hand drier. "That was such a small thing, but for that young man, having dry socks was such an improvement from being cold and wet," she said. "Little things like that meant a lot to the families."
Nine members of one family were among the 17 people who died when the duck boat capsized, a representative of Parson's office confirmed Friday. Two other members of the family survived. Seven other passengers were injured, and two of those were in serious condition.
Aside from Williams, the boat driver, the names and ages of the victims had not been released as of Friday evening. Williams, who lived in Branson with his wife of 30 years, was described as having loved his role promoting Branson.
"Every time you saw him he was smiling," Best said. "He was a great guy. He loved Branson."
Victor Richardson, a grandson of Williams's, said in a telephone interview that "he was the calmest spirit you could ever meet."
Police were called about the duck boat sinking shortly after 7 p.m. Thursday, officials said. While dive teams headed to the scene, people already there began to help, Rader said. Among those helping were one of his deputies, who was off-duty and providing security on the Branson Belle, a showboat used for lake tours.
The weather had been nice until shortly before the disaster, Allison Lester, who saw what happened from a nearby boat, said in a television interview.
"The wind really picked up bad, and debris was flying everywhere, and just the waves were really rough," Lester told "Good Morning America" on Friday. "It was just suddenly and out of nowhere."
In video captured by onlookers from the lake, two duck boats can be seen plunging up and down in choppy waves and high spray. One boat lags behind the other, nose-diving into the water.
"Oh my gosh, oh no," a woman is heard saying in the background of the video. "Somebody needs to help them."
This article was written by Allyson Chiu, Samantha Schmidt and Mark Berman, all are reporters for The Washington Post.