KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Charges have been filed against the captain of a Missouri tourist boat that sank and killed 17 people, including nine people from an Indiana family, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
A federal indictment shows 51-year-old Kenneth Scott McKee is facing 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship's officer resulting in death. The July accident occurred when an amphibious vessel known as a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake when a sudden and severe storm rolled into the area. The boats were originally designed for military use in World War II but had been refurbished as a tourist attraction.
McKee is accused of not properly assessing the weather before or after the boat went on the lake near the tourist town of Branson, U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said during a news conference in Springfield. Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats, suspended operations following the accident.
The U.S. Coast Guard found probable cause that the accident "resulted from the misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties" by the boat's captain, Kenneth McKee, according to an August court filing. The U.S. attorney's office added that 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.
The sinking killed nine members of Tia Coleman's family, including her three young children and husband, who were vacationing from Indiana. 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 their survivors.
A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation but has said the company has cooperated with authorities.
The vessels first take tourists on a trip through Branson, a Midwestern destination for country music shows and entertainment venues about 170 miles (274 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. The amphibious vehicles then travel 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.
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 and, 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 (0.61 meters) 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.
Read ongoing updates
Associated Press writer Jim Salter contributed to this report from St. Louis.
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OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY
WESTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
DUCK BOAT CAPTAIN INDICTED FOR MISCONDUCT, NEGLIGENCE RESULTING IN 17 DEATHS AT TABLE ROCK LAKE
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – The captain of the duck boat that sank at Table Rock Lake last summer, resulting in the deaths of 17 people, was indicted by a federal grand jury today.
“Our entire community was shocked and saddened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last summer,” U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said. “Today’s indictment alleges that the misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty by the ship’s captain caused or contributed to the loss of those lives.
“This remains an active and ongoing investigation,” Garrison added. “To better enable our office in its urgent pursuit of justice through this investigation, we have requested various courts presiding over the related civil lawsuits to allow our intervention and stay certain manners of discovery to prohibit those lawsuits from impeding or jeopardizing our work. Today’s indictment illustrates the urgency our investigative team has shown in its pursuit so as not to unnecessarily burden other legal avenues utilized by victims.”
Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, of Verona, Mo., was charged in a 17-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Springfield, Mo. McKee was the captain of Stretch Duck 7, operated by Ripley Entertainment, Inc. The company operated duck boat tours in Branson, Mo., and on Table Rock Lake and Lake Taneycomo.
Today’s indictment charges McKee with misconduct, negligence, or inattention to duty by a ship’s officer, resulting in the death of another person. McKee is charged with one count for each of the 17 passengers (including one crew member) who died when Stretch Duck 7 sank on July 19, 2018.
The federal indictment alleges that McKee committed a number of acts of misconduct, negligence, and inattention to his duties while piloting Stretch Duck 7 both before and during severe weather conditions.
McKee allegedly failed to properly assess incoming weather prior to entering the vessel on the water. At the time McKee drove the vessel into the water, according to the indictment, there was lightning in the area and severe weather approaching. The indictment also alleges that McKee failed to properly assess the nature of the severe weather while the vessel was on the water.
McKee allegedly operated Stretch Duck 7 in violation of the conditions and limitations specified in the vessels’ certificate of inspection. When severe weather (including increased wind speed) arrived at the vessel’s location, the indictment says, McKee failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices. He allegedly also failed to immediately increase speed and head to the nearest shore. He allegedly caused or allowed the vessel’s plastic side curtains to be lowered, which created a barrier over the vessel’s exits in the event of a need to abandon ship.
The first time the vessel’s bilge alarm sounded, the indictment says, McKee failed to raise the side curtains, failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices, and failed to prepare to abandon ship. The second time the vessel’s bilge alarm sounded, the indictment says, McKee again failed to raise the side curtains, failed to instruct passengers to don personal flotation devices, and failed to prepare to abandon ship. McKee allegedly failed to prepare to abandon ship when there was an unacceptable loss of freeboard on the vessel as well. (Freeboard refers to distance from the waterline to the upper deck level; a loss of freeboard is when waves are overtopping the freeboard, thus causing the ship to fill with water.)
The indictment alleges that these acts of misconduct, negligence, and inattention to duty separately and collectively caused the lives of 17 persons on board Stretch Duck 7 to be lost.
Under federal statutes, a conviction for this offense is subject to a sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison without parole on each count of conviction, plus a fine of $250,000. The maximum statutory sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes, as the sentencing of any convicted defendant is determined by the court based on the advisory sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.
The charges contained in this indictment are simply accusations, and not evidence of guilt. Evidence supporting the charges must be presented to a federal trial jury, whose duty is to determine guilt or innocence.
This case is being prosecuted by Supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall D. Eggert and Assistant U.S. Attorney Casey Clark. It was investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Stone County, Mo., Sheriff’s Department, the Taney County, Mo., Sheriff’s Department, the Branson, Mo., Police Department, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, the Stone County, Mo., Prosecutor’s Office, and the Taney County, Mo., Prosecutor’s Office.
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