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Duck Boat dangers have been a concern for decades

Editor's Note: We incorrectly stated that 19 people died in the July boat accident in Missouri. The correct number is 17. We regret the error.

Duck Boats have been a popular novelty tourist ride around the country for many years. But a deadly accident in Branson, Missouri, that killed 17 is putting questions about safety and regulation back in the spotlight. John Yang reports that last week's accident was similar to a 1999 sinking in Arkansas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For many years, duck boats have been a popular novelty tourist ride in a number of places around the United States.

    But, as John Yang reports, last week's deadly accident in Branson, Missouri, is putting questions about the safety of those vehicles in the spotlight once again, and some are asking whether they are properly regulated.

  • John Yang:

    In Indianapolis last night, a prayer vigil for nine members of one family killed in last week's duck boat tragedy near Branson, Missouri.

    Safety experts say the dangers of duck boats have been well-documented for nearly two decades.

    Peter Goelz was managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board in the late 1990s.

  • Peter Goelz:

    This wasn't an accident that came out of the blue. We have seen this before, and it's tragic that action hadn't been taken.

  • John Yang:

    The amphibious vehicles were built during World War II as military landing craft. Today, they operate as land-and-water tourist attractions in many U.S. cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C.

    Late Thursday, a duck boat tour on Table Rock Lake in Missouri capsized during a severe storm, killing 17 of the 31 passengers aboard. Video shot by people nearby show the doomed vessel battling near-hurricane-force winds and quickly sinking as it takes on water.

    The boat's operators ventured out despite storm warnings.

    Tia Coleman lost nine family members, including her husband and three children. Only she and a nephew survived.

  • Tia Coleman:

    Since I have had a home, it has always been filled. It has always been filled with little feet and laughter and my husband. I don't know how I am going to do it.

  • John Yang:

    Ripley Entertainment, the Orlando-based owners of the duck boat that sank last week, said in a statement that they are cooperating with all federal and state authorities involved in the investigation.

    The accident was similar to a 1999 sinking in Arkansas that killed 13 people. That boat was outfitted with a canopy roof, just like the one in last week's accident. After investigating the Arkansas accident, the NTSB concluded that the canopy was a major impediment to the survival of the passengers.

    Intended to protect riders from the weather, safety investigators say passengers can get trapped beneath the canopies as the boat takes on water and sinks. In the 1999 Arkansas accident, seven of the 13 dead were found still inside, four of them pinned beneath the canopy.

  • Peter Goelz:

    We found those to be a virtual death trap, that, with those canopies in place, it was very hard, if the boat when down, for people to escape unless they were really good swimmers or were sitting in the very outside seats.

    The vehicle, which weighs over four tons, once it reached a critical level of flooding, gets sank very quickly.

  • John Yang:

    The NTSB's investigation led to several safety recommendations, including removing the canopies and improving the duck's buoyancy. The NTSB has no enforcement powers.

  • Peter Goelz:

    We sent out 13 letters to the operators of the duck boats at that time. Fourteen of the operators never responded at all.

  • John Yang:

    The other 16 simply acknowledged getting the letter.

    Since 1999, more than two dozen other people have died in duck boat accidents both on land and on water. At least three government agencies, including the Coast Guard and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, share responsibility for duck boat safety.

  • Peter Goelz:

    Because these vehicles kind of slip through the cracks in terms of regulation and oversight — you know, is it a bus? Is it a seagoing vessel? Who really calls the shots? They tend to get very little scrutiny.

  • John Yang:

    Until tragedy strikes, as it did last week on this Missouri lake, claiming 17 lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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