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17 dead after duck boat sinks in Missouri

BRANSON, Mo. — As the duck boat made its everyday tour around Table Rock Lake, a popular spot in southern Missouri, the skies grew dark and a fierce wind, more than 60 miles per hour, began battering it. Waves crashed against the boat’s sides as it rose and fell in a brutal chop.

Then as stunned onlookers watched, some capturing video, the duck boat carrying 31 people suddenly slipped under.

Seventeen people were killed in the accident Thursday evening, authorities said Friday, and seven others, including three children, were taken to hospitals. The victims ranged in age from 1 to 70, and nine came from one family.

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It was one of the deadliest amphibious boat accidents in US history.

One of the dead was Bob Williams, the driver of the duck boat, who had served as an associate pastor at a Providence church for more than a decade, the church said Friday evening. Williams and his wife, Judith, were part “of the founding family of Cathedral of Life” in 1999, according to a statement from the church, which has been renamed The King’s Cathedral.

“Pastor Bob was a prince of a man, loving, kind, and generous, whose loss to our family is incalculable,” said Jeffrey A. Williams, bishop for The King’s Cathedral.

It was not immediately clear when Williams moved away from Rhode Island.

Residents around Branson, which draws throngs of tourists every summer, said the storm had come up suddenly and with shocking ferocity, only a short time after weather officials had issued warnings.

“They gave the storm warning and then massive, straight-line winds came out of nowhere,” said resident Michael Homan.

Duck boats are modeled after the amphibious trucks that the Army and Marine Corps used during World War II to carry troops and supplies.

After 13 people were killed when a duck boat sank in Hot Springs, Ark., in May 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board called for sweeping changes to the way such tour boats operate, including closer monitoring by the Coast Guard.

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A sheriff’s deputy was on the scene when Thursday’s accident happened and assisted in the rescue, Sheriff Doug Rader said.

Divers searched for survivors until 11:30 p.m. and returned to the lake Friday morning with members of the Missouri Highway Patrol to resume the effort. They located the sunken boat shortly after.

There were two duck boats on the water during the storm, and both were returning to land at the time of the accident. “The first one made it out, and the second one didn’t,” Rader said, adding that strong winds, which were part of a storm system that passed across much of the Midwest, caused the boat to capsize.

The boat that sank had life jackets, but the sheriff did not know if people were wearing them. Of the 31 people on the boat, 29 were passengers and two were crew members. The captain, who had 16 years of experience on the lake, survived and was taken to a hospital, but the other crew member, identified separately as Williams, who was described as the driver, died, authorities said.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team to investigate. The Coast Guard is also investigating.

Duck boats can drive on land and float on the water and are popular in coastal cities like Boston and Seattle.

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A Boston-based duck tour company issued a statement Friday reassuring the public that its tours adhere to strict safety standards.

Bob Schwartz, a spokesman for Boston Duck Tours, said the company uses replica World War II amphibious vehicles that were built in the early 2000s, and monitors the weather for all three departure locations: the Museum of Science, the New England Aquarium, and the Prudential Center.

In impending bad weather, Schwartz said, the staff is able to communicate with all duck boats simultaneously via two-way radios. Weather alerts can also be received through the marine radios on the vehicles.

Boston Duck Tours, which has been operating in Boston since 1994, has never had an accident on the water, he said.

Schwartz said the company does not allow the duck boats to go into the Charles River if there is lightning in the area, if winds are more than 25 knots (about 29 miles per hour), or if waves are more than a foot high. The boats have life jackets and are required to stay within 1,000 feet of shore.

In May 1999, a duck boat known as the Miss Majestic sank to the bottom of Lake Hamilton in Arkansas, killing 13 people.

The NTSB cited inadequate maintenance as the cause of that accident and ordered duck boat operators nationwide to outfit their vessels with additional flotation devices. The agency’s report said the Coast Guard had generally displayed inadequate oversight and had not done a full inspection.

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Emily Sweeney and Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.