Major safety risks – duck boat design flaw flagged years ago

NEW YORK (REUTERS) – The drownings of 17 people when a “duck boat” in which they were riding sank in a storm over a Missouri lake on Thursday (July 19) was reminiscent of an accident involving the amphibious tourist vessel in 1999 in which 13 people died.

Authorities were investigating on Friday how the boat capsized and the cause of the deaths, on Table Rock Lake near the tourist destination of Branson during a storm.
A Philadelphia lawyer who has advocated for victims of other duck boat disasters said the canopy roof on duck boats turned them into a “death trap” even for anyone wearing a life preserver.

“You drown if you do, you drown if you don’t,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, who is calling for federal and state transportation officials to immediately halt all duck boat operations.

The maker of the Missouri duck boat, Ride the Ducks International, did not respond to a request for comment.

A decades old report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said duck boats’ canopy roof contributed to the 13 deaths in the 1999 incident, on Lake Hamilton in Arkansas.

“Canopies present major safety risks that need to be addressed… both adults and children wearing lifejackets are at risk of being drowned if entrapped by the overhead canopy,” the NTSB said of the sinking.

Gerald Dworkin, a consultant for Lifesaving Resources, an aquatics safety training firm in Maine, said, “Even if they were wearing a life jacket when the boat went down, unless they could evacuate through the side windows they would’ve been trapped by that canopy.”

The US Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the NTSB report but confirmed it is responsible for regulating boats.

Among the questions being examined by investigators was whether passengers were wearing life jackets.

On the state-run Missouri Division of Tourism’s website, VisitMO, Ride the Ducks said, “Our Ducks use the latest in marine design and safety. They are regularly inspected, tested & certified by the United States Coast Guard to ensure a safe and comfortable experience for our guests.”

The state agency pulled the page from its website on Friday.

Kate Renfrow, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email, “Our web team made a decision to pause the listing this morning to give the associates of Ride the Ducks the ability to focus on those impacted by this tragedy.”

“Once we confirm the business is operating again, we intend to restore,” Renfrow wrote.

A number of duck boat tragedies occurred in 2015 and 2016.

A woman walking in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighbourhood was killed by a duck boat on land in May 2015. That September, a duck boat crashed into a charter bus carrying students in Seattle, killing five and injuring dozens.

In April 2016, a woman riding a scooter was killed by a duck boat in Boston.

News footage:


Follow-up Story

Duck boats had trouble from the start

by Rachel Slade, Boston Glove (July 24, 2018)

THE STORY OF a recent duck boat disaster in Missouri began long ago off the coast of Cape Cod. One stormy day in 1942, a US Coast Guard vessel was grounded on one of the countless sandbars near Provincetown. The seven servicemen aboard found themselves stranded, shivering in the cold, watching as the powerful surf threatened to capsize their boat and drown them all.

Through the wind and waves, they saw salvation in the form of an awkward amphibious vessel riding frighteningly low to the water, breaking over the crests, fighting through the surf. The vehicle had been created by an MIT-trained serviceman to carry troops and supplies from ship to shore, but the American military had rejected it for production. Why it was rejected has been lost to history, but one such experimental vehicle happened to be on the Cape for testing.

The Coast Guardsmen jumped into the vessel and were ferried back safely to shore, in a vessel that seemed to embody the same ingenuity and calculated risk-taking that has shaped mariner culture for thousands of years. The rescue also assuaged doubts about a vehicle that soon went into wartime production and ferried supplies from ship to shore on D-Day.

Three-quarters of a century later, the duck boat is far more familiar as a sightseeing vehicle in places like Boston or, fatefully, Branson, Mo. Yet the convoluted way in which the United States regulates the maritime industry, including commercial tourism boats, is better explained by maritime tradition than by modern safety standards.

In the age of sail, ships vanished, sailors were lost, and people erected plaques in their honor. What happened at sea was a mystery. Everyone knew it was a risky business. But people were drawn to it nonetheless: Life on the water meant life beyond the niggling rules that apply on terra firma. Out of sight of land, not another boat on the horizon, the law of the sea takes over. Mariner culture is synonymous with independence — you are the master of your vessel and your own fate.

The maritime industry predates the laws of this country, and maritime culture has shaped how it is regulated, yielding a crazy patchwork of laws. Nearly all of the rules are reactive — that is, written in response to major marine casualties.

In contrast, the airline industry, which had no such history, was instantly beset with standards and laws and best practices from the get-go. The seeds of its sole regulatory body — the powerful Federal Aviation Administration — were introduced in 1926 at the urging of the leaders within the nascent industry itself who fretted that without strong safety standards, the skies would become deadly, instantly destroying the public’s faith in air travel. There is no maritime equivalent of the FAA.

Follow-up Story

Records show Missouri boat designer had no engineering credentials

by Kristine Phillips, Washington Post (July 26, 2018)

The 17 people who were killed last week after a duck boat sank in Missouri were riding in an amphibious vehicle designed by a self-taught businessman who had no formal training in engineering or mechanics, according to court records.

Robert F. McDowell owned and ran Ride the Ducks in Branson, Mo., for nearly three decades. In the 1980s, he came up with the idea of redesigning the company’s amphibious passenger vehicles by stretching them by 15 inches, and by the mid-1990s, Ride the Ducks was manufacturing what’s called ‘‘stretch’’ duck boats, according to court filings from a pending lawsuit filed against the company over a fatal crash in Seattle. Fast-forward to 2018, one of those boats built based on McDowell’s design, carrying 29 passengers and two crew members, sank to the bottom of Table Rock Lake amid torrential storms.

It remains unknown whether McDowell’s design was a factor in the boat’s sinking. A spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, confirmed that the vehicle that sank was, in fact, a ‘‘stretch’’ boat and said its design and how it was built are part of the ongoing probe.

Ride the Ducks’s boats, which the company said were replicas of World War II Army vehicles used in beach landings and were updated with modern safety equipment, and McDowell’s lack of formal credentials have been a concern among some lawyers in the last few years. Public officials also recently called into question the safety and structural integrity of the boats after the deaths of 17 the tourists in Branson last week.

McDowell did not have a degree or certification in engineering or mechanics. He spent 2 1/2 years as a pre-medicine student at Illinois Wesleyan University before moving to Branson in the 1970s to take over the management of Ozark Scenic Tours, which his father had bought and would later become Ride the Ducks, he said in a deposition as part of the Seattle lawsuit. He said he educated himself on how to run the boat operation by talking to its previous owners, a high school football coach and a doctor. He learned about mechanics and vehicle maintenance by spending a lot of time at auto shops.

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