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Video shows last moments on Branson duck boat as operators face charges in 2018 tragedy

·9 min read
Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com

The passengers of Stretch Duck No. 7 began boarding as “Don’t Worry be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin played from the speakers.

Someone hollered up at Kenneth “Scott” McKee, the boat’s captain, that he should take the water route first, then the land. He said OK. It was July 19, 2018.

As 29 passengers, plus former pastor Robert “Bob” Williams, the duck boat driver, boarded the tourist sightseeing vessel, McKee commented on the humidity, noting that a storm was coming. Within the hour, the boat would sink, killing 17 people on board, including five children.

Three years later, McKee, 54; Curtis P. Lanham, 39, the general manager at Ride the Ducks in Branson; and Charles V. Baltzell, 79, the operations supervisor who was acting as a manager on duty that night, face criminal charges based on the events of that sweltering day.

On Wednesday, the defendants sat together on a front bench in Stone County Circuit Court as the prosecution and defense presented evidence, including testimonies and video from the boat ride, that illustrated why the Ride the Ducks employees made the decision to send out a sightseeing vessel with 31 people on board at Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri just ahead of a powerful storm that pummeled the region.

The men each face 17 counts of first-degree involuntary manslaughter, a felony. The criminal charges were announced in July by the Missouri Attorney General and the Stone County prosecuting attorney.

McKee, who was steering the boat when it sank, additionally faces 12 counts of first-degree endangering the welfare of a child, also felonies. Twelve children under the age of 17 were on the duck boat when it capsized.

The captain is accused of failing in his role as a boat captain by taking the duck boat on the lake as a storm approached and by not having passengers wear flotation devices, according to a probable cause statement, though a National Transportation Safety Board report on the tragedy said life jackets can increase the risk to passengers because it can trap passengers against the boat’s canopy as it sinks.

Lanham and Baltzell are also accused of not communicating the danger of the oncoming storm and halting the tour.

McKee, Lanham and Baltzell each pleaded not guilty in September.

A storm in the forecast

Sgt. Shawn Fields, with the Stone County Sheriff’s Office, was working off-duty security on the Showboat Branson Belle on July 19, 2018, when his wife called. He was between cruises, and she saw on the local TV station that a storm was set to hit the area later in the day, the officer testified Wednesday.

At about 6:45, he ran to his patrol car to change into a new uniform, the last one soiled by the humidity. Two duck boats were in the parking lot, preparing to get in the water.

The sky to the northwest was “pretty black,” he said, but pop-up storms aren’t unusual in the summer in southern Missouri.

The storm was visible, but still seemed “quite a ways away,” McKee, who was in one of the boats, told Sgt. Travis Hitchcock with Missouri State Highway Patrol during a bedside interview at the hospital less than 24 hours after the tragedy.

McKee, who had been a licensed captain for about 30 years, 18 of which he spent with Ride the Ducks, had the final decision-making ability in whether to take the boat out, Hitchcock testified. But the lake looked “placid,” when they entered the water, McKee previously said.

Investigators on Wednesday testified that the defendants told them no local plans or policies related to foul weather were written down. Instead they had verbal plans. Additionally, there was no required plan for monitoring weather.

Lanham checked the weather a little before 6 p.m., before captaining a boat himself. McKee checked it around 6:20 p.m., according to Wednesday’s testimony.

As he helped load the boats, Baltzell, who was manager on duty that day, said he was asked by another manager to monitor the weather before McKee’s boat went out. Baltzell saw reports of lightning near Springfield, about 40 miles away, and told McKee to deviate to the water first, to beat the storm.

‘You guys wanted an adventure’

Just before taking off, the boatload smiled for a photo. It was the last image Tia Coleman took with her family, including her husband, three children, mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, niece, nephew and her uncle.

Coleman’s mother-in-law had chosen Branson for their family vacation that year. They traveled to Missouri from Indianapolis, eager to find fun for the grandparents and grandkids alike. That’s how they found themselves on the 6:30 p.m. duck boat. A ride for all ages. Video from inside the boat that was admitted as evidence in court Wednesday shows the family’s final moments together.

McKee spoke into an intercom system as upbeat music continued. The Beach Boys sang. He made dad jokes. He pointed out Branson landmarks and listed off fun facts about the duck boat as the crowd chuckled.

As the boat neared the end of the road and the beginning of the lake, he gave a safety spiel. The windows doubled as emergency exits. The life jackets were overhead.

“We’re not going to need them,” McKee told the customers. But he assured them he’d let them know if that changed.

Then he took over the driver’s seat from Williams.

He noted a change in temperature.

“That rain’s getting closer to us.”

The guests cheered as the amphibious vessel glided into the water around 6:55 p.m. Then McKee invited the kids on board to help steer.

First was a boy who said he wanted to go into the Army. Then a boy who wanted to be a surgeon. Next was Evan, 7, who wanted to be a police officer. And last a boy who dreamed of being a film director.

McKee took over the wheel again as the group collectively made noises, water splashing up on them.

“You guys wanted an adventure and now you’re getting it,” McKee said in the similar jolly tone he’d used since they boarded. But he doesn’t say much more after. Instead he picked up the radio; what he said into it is indistinguishable. Williams stood up.

As the wind strengthened on the lake, McKee skipped the usual path of the water tour and headed straight for the exit ramp.

The final moments aboard Duck No. 7

Fields, the sergeant with the sheriff’s office, was across the way on land, headed back to the showboat, which had decided not to leave port because of the storm. As Fields helped usher those on board to a nearby shelter, he said he noticed the two duck boats out on the lake as the wind started to pick up.

“They were really having trouble making headway to the north exit ramp,” he recalled. Finally, the first made it to land. The second, which he estimated was only 10 to 20 yards back, continued being tossed around by the waves.

The second boat was sitting lower in the water than the first, he noted.

Just after 7 p.m., winds increased and whitecaps were visible on the water, according to an initial report released by the NTSB.

“All of a sudden there was — you could just see the water just erupt,” McKee said, according to court records.

He later added that he had never seen the lake get so rough so quickly.

Video from on board the boat captured the shouting and squeals turn to hollers and screams. Then the video cut off.

The boat started to sink at 7:09 p.m.

As water filled the boat, McKee reached for the lever to raise the windows so people could escape. He successfully pulled one of the two before the water pushed him out and over the front of the boat.

“Waves were coming in, and then all of a sudden it was gone,” Fields said, recalling as the boat sank beneath the water’s surface in Stone County, just over the Taney County line.

Fields borrowed a phone — his was inside charging — and called 911. Then he stripped off his gear, grabbed a couple life jackets, and got in the lake.

He found Coleman first, helping her out of the water. The next two people he pulled out — an elderly woman and a young child — had not survived, he recalled. He called for backup.

Coleman and her nephew were the only family members who came home from the vacation. The other nine were buried.

Among the victims was also Williams, a couple from Higginsville, a couple from St. Louis, an Illinois woman who was taking her granddaughter on a special trip to Branson and a father and son from Arkansas.

The courtroom was silent as many in the room dabbed tears from their eyes.

The state rested its case Wednesday afternoon during the preliminary hearing after prosecutors called five witnesses to the stand and showed video of the final 30 minutes of the fateful duck boat tour.

J.R. Hobbs, a criminal defense attorney from Kansas City representing McKee, stood. He asked that the judge, Alan Mark Blankenship, dismiss all charges against all three defendants on the grounds of a lack of probable cause. Blankenship said he would take it under advisement as he considers whether there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

A federal grand jury previously indicted the three men, but the indictment was dismissed in December 2020 when a federal judge in Springfield ruled that federal prosecutors did not have jurisdiction over the case because of the characteristics of Table Rock Lake, but conceded that state prosecutors could bring a case if they so decided.

The deaths also prompted a torrent of lawsuits against Ride the Ducks and Ripley Entertainment, a Canadian company that bought the Ride the Ducks enterprise in Branson in late 2017. They settled on confidential terms.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday morning in Stone County.

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