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Survivor says duck boat entered water as storm approached

Duck boat accident survivor Tia Coleman was comforted by her sister Leeta Bigbee after describing the disaster.
Duck boat accident survivor Tia Coleman was comforted by her sister Leeta Bigbee after describing the disaster.(Associated Press)

BRANSON, Mo. — ‘‘Grab the baby!’’

Those were the last words Tia Coleman recalls her sister-in-law yelling before the tourist boat they were on sank into a Missouri lake, killing 17 people, including nine of Coleman’s family members.

A huge wave hit, scattering passengers on the vessel known as a duck boat into Table Rock Lake near Branson, Coleman said. When the Indianapolis woman came up for air, she was alone. She prayed.

‘‘I said, ‘Lord, please, let me get to my babies,’’ she told reporters from her wheelchair Saturday in the lobby of a hospital, where she’s recovering after swallowing lake water. ‘‘ ‘If they don’t make it, Lord, take me too. I don’t need to be here.’ ’’

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Coleman recalled spotting the rescue boat and managed to reach it, ‘‘somehow.’’ Earlier, from her hospital bed, she recounted to TV station KOLR her sister-in-law’s last words.

Coleman’s husband and three children, ages 9, 7, and 1; her 45-year-old sister-in-law and 2-year-old nephew; her mother-in-law and father-in-law and her husband’s uncle all died Thursday night in the deadliest accident of its kind in nearly two decades.

A private inspector said Saturday that he warned the company operating the duck boats about design flaws putting the watercraft at greater risk of sinking, less than a year before the accident.

Steve Paul, owner of the Test Drive Technologies inspection service in the St. Louis area, said he issued a written report for the company in August 2017. It explained why the boats’ engines — and pumps that remove water from their hulls — might fail in inclement weather.

He also told The Associated Press that the tourist boats’ canopies make them hard to escape when they sink — a concern raised by regulators after a similar sinking in Arkansas killed 13 people in 1999.

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Among the people killed Thursday included a Missouri couple who had just celebrated a birthday; another Missouri couple on what was planned as their last extended vacation; 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.

None of the 31 passengers on board was wearing a life jacket, according to an incident report released Saturday by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

State and federal investigators were trying to determine what sent the vessel, originally built for military use in World War II, to its demise. An initial assessment blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength, but it wasn’t clear why the amphibious vehicle even ventured into the water.

Coleman said the crew told passengers they were going into the water first, before the land-based part of their tour, because of the incoming storm. The area had been under a severe thunderstorm watch for hours and a severe thunderstorm warning for more than 30 minutes before the boat sank.

Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said it was the company’s only accident in more than 40 years of operation. The company hasn’t commented on Coleman’s account of the tour, which usually begins with a tour of downtown Branson, known for its country shows and entertainment, before the vessel enters the lake for a short ride on the water.

Company president Jim Pattison Jr. said the boat captain had 16 years of experience and said the business monitors weather.

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Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard. Fourteen people survived, including two adults who remained hospitalized Saturday. Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew were the only of the 11 members of her family who boarded the boat to make it out alive.