The captain of a tourist boat that sank in southwest Missouri and killed 17 people, including nine members of an Indianapolis family, didn’t tell passengers to put on flotation devices or prepare them to abandon ship even after waves crashed into the boat during a severe storm, according to an indictment released Thursday.
The federal indictment shows Kenneth Scott McKee faces 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship’s officer resulting in death. The deaths occurred after the duck boat, a refurbished amphibious vessel originally used by the military during World War II, sank during a storm in July.
U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said the 51-year-old McKee is also accused of failing to properly assess the weather before and after the boat went into Table Rock Lake near Branson, a Midwestern tourist town known for country music shows and entertainment venues.
“This is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts in this matter,” Garrison said during a news conference in Springfield, adding that he couldn’t release specifics about the investigation.
Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats and suspended the operation following the accident, didn’t respond to messages from The Associated Press. McKee’s attorney declined comment.
If convicted, McKee could face up to 10 years in prison for each count and a fine of $250,000. Garrison said he expects McKee to surrender.
Tia Coleman — an Indianapolis woman whose husband, three young children and five other family members died in the sinking — released a statement Thursday saying she was pleased an indictment had been filed. Coleman was among 14 people who survived the sinking.
“While nothing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grateful that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is fighting for justice for my family, and the other victims, and is committed to holding fully accountable all those responsible for this tragedy,” Coleman said.
The other people killed included two couples from Missouri, an Illinois woman who died while saving her granddaughter’s life, an Arkansas father and son and a retired pastor who was the boat’s operator on land.
Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of victims and survivors against Ripley Entertainment and other companies involved with the manufacture and operation of the boats. Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing Coleman and several others, said he’s confident the federal investigation will go beyond McKee.
The U.S. Coast Guard had found probable cause that the accident resulted from McKee’s “misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties,” according to an August court filing. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the captain of a second duck boat that safely made it to shore during the storm acted in a “grossly negligent manner,” though the court filing didn’t elaborate on those findings.
A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation but has said the company has cooperated with authorities.
On Thursday, Garrison said McKee violated conditions specified in the boat’s certificate of inspection by failing to tell passengers to put on personal floatation devices and not immediately increasing speed and driving to the nearest shore, according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges McKee allowed the boat’s plastic side curtains to be lowered, which blocked the exits, and didn’t instruct passengers to put on flotation devices or prepare them to abandon ship even after the bilge alarm sounded twice.
The vessel first took tourists on a trip through Branson, which is about 170 miles northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. The amphibious vehicle then traveled to Table Rock Lake for a short excursion on water.
Weather was calm when the vessel known as a Stretch Duck 7 began its trip on July 19, but investigators have contended that operators had ample warning that a strong storm was approaching.
The vessel’s certificate of inspection issued by the Coast Guard in 2017 established rules and limitations on when it could be on the water. It states the boat “shall not be operated waterborne” when winds exceed 35 mph and/or wave heights exceed 2 feet.
Garrison said McKee violated those limitations when he put the boat into the lake.
Video and audio from the boat, recovered by divers, showed that the lake was calm when the boat entered the water. But the weather suddenly turned violent. Within minutes, the boat sank.
The wind speed at the time of the accident was more than 70 mph, just short of hurricane force, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly exceeding 60 mph.
The wave height wasn’t known, but cellphone video shot by passengers on a nearby excursion boat showed waves that appeared to be far greater than 2 feet high.
In addition to the weather, the Coast Guard has said it was looking into regulatory compliance of the boat and crew member duties and qualifications.
Branson is among several places around the country where the amphibious vehicles offer excursions. Since 1999, 42 deaths have been associated with duck boat accidents.
On May 1, 1999, 13 people died when the Miss Majestic duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 2015, five college students died and more than 70 people were hurt when a duck boat veered into a charter bus on a bridge in Seattle. Two Hungarian tourists died in 2010 when a stalled duck boat was struck by a tugboat-guided barge on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.