Charges were filed Thursday against the captain of a Missouri duck boat that sank in severe weather in July, killing 17 people, including nine members of the same family, federal officials announced.
Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, was indicted by a federal grand jury and is facing 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship's officer resulting in death.
In 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the vessels provide “reserve buoyancy” such as through watertight compartmentalization, to keep them afloat in the event of flooding.
Grand jury indicts captain of Missouri duck boat that sank in severe weather, killing 17 people
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.
The vessel known as a “duck boat” went down July 19 on Table Rock Lake near the city of Branson. The amphibious vehicle, which can drive on land and float in water, carried 29 passengers and two crew.
“Our entire community was shocked and saddened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last summer,” 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.”
Missouri duck boat captain indicted in connection with sinking that killed 17 passengers
Garrison said that McKee operated the boat in conditions that "exceeded" what the vehicle was supposed to be able to withstand. The boat was on an excursion on July 19 on Table Rock Lake when it sank after a severe storm rolled into the area.
Video and audio from the boat, recovered by divers, showed the lake was calm when the boat entered, but the weather suddenly turned violent.
The indictment alleges McKee failed to properly assess incoming severe weather and allowed the boats side curtains to be lowered, which allegedly trapped passengers inside.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in preliminary reports on the accident that the wind speed at the time was more than 70 mph, just short of hurricane force. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly exceeding 60 mph.
The advisory followed the 1999 sinking of the Miss Majestic with the loss of 13 lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas, because of “inadequate maintenance,” the NTSB said.
Missouri tour boat captain indicted after sinking kills 17
The wave height wasn’t known, but cell phone video shot by passengers on a nearby excursion boat showed waves that appeared to be far greater than 2 feet high.
Grand jury indicts captain of duck boat invovled in deadly accident near Branson
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.
Branson Duck Boat Captain Indicted by Federal Grand Jury
The duck boat that sank in Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., was raised four days after the tragedy. (Nathan Papes/The Springfield News-Leader via AP, File))
Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats that were originally designed for used in World War II but refurbished as a tourist attraction, suspended operations following the accident.
The sinking killed nine members of Tia Coleman's family, including her three young children and husband, who were vacationing from Indiana.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The captain of a tourist boat that sank in southwest Missouri and killed 17 people, including nine members of an Indiana family, didnt tell passengers to put on flotation devices or prepare them to abandon ship even after waves crashed into the boat during a severe storm, according to an indictment released Thursday.
Nine members of the Coleman family from Indiana died in the duck boat accident on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo. (GoFundMe via Coleman Family Campaign)
Video: Captain in deadly Missouri duck boat crash indicted
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.
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.
Back in July, a mechanical inspector told Fox news he warned the company about massive design flaws and dangerous safety issues almost a year before the tragedy.
“While nothing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grateful that the U.S. Attorneys Office is fighting for justice for my family, and the other victims, and is committed to holding fully accountable all those responsible for this tragedy,” Coleman said.
"My first thought was I was thankful that me and my family weren't on the ducks," Steve Paul told Fox News at the time. "My second thought was, 'Oh man, I probably inspected that boat.'"
Paul said he sent the company a "2-to-3-page fleet inspection report" as well as 24 checklist reports and "as many as 20 photos for each duck" he inspected in August 2017.
In the report, he cautioned that the boats' engines — and pumps that remove water from their hulls — might fail in bad weather. In rough conditions, water could get into the exhaust system, and then into the motor, cutting it off. With the motor off, its pump for removing water from the hull would not operate.
Branson is among several places around the country where the amphibious vehicles offer excursions for tourists. 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.
Kenneth Scott McKee, a 51-year-old resident of Verona, Missouri, was charged with 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ships officer, officials said.
Captain of Branson duck boat that sank on Table Rock Lake indicted on federal charges
“The captain of the vessel always has a duty to operate his vessel in a safe manner and that is why Mr. McKee is under indictment this morning,” U.S. Attorney for Western District of Missouri Tim Garrison said in announcing the indictments.
The tragedy unfolded on July 19 when a Ride the Ducks amphibious boat, dubbed “Stretch Duck 7,” ventured on to Table Rock Lake during a thunderstorm with 60 mph winds.
The U.S. Coast Guard found probable cause that the accident was caused by “negligence” and “inattention to the duties” by McKee, according to an August court filing.
McKee operated the boat “in violation of the conditions and limitations specified in the vessels United States Coast Guard issued Certificate of Inspection,” according to the indictment.
Captain Of Duck Boat That Sank Near Branson Indicted On 17 Counts Of Seamans Manslaughter
And specifically, the captain also “failed to properly assess the nature of the severe weather,” the indictment said.
Captain from duck boat disaster indicted on criminal charges
Even though other boats were out on the water that stormy day, prosecutors said this boat should not have shoved off.
Charges filed against captain of Missouri tourist boat that sank, killed 17
“Well, different vessels have different ratings for what they are able to withstand,” Garrison said. “And we are alleging that Mr. McKee operated this particular vessel under conditions which exceeded those which the vessel was able to withstand.”
Captain charged by feds after 17 die when duck boat sinks in thunderstorm
Tia Coleman survived the tragic accident — but lost husband Glen Coleman, 40, and her children Maxwell Coleman, 2, Evan Coleman, 7, and Reece Coleman, 9. She thanked prosecutors on Thursday.
Captain Charged in Missouri Duck Boat Accident That Killed 17 Passengers
“While nothing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grateful that the U.S. Attorneys Office is fighting for justice for my family, and the other victims, and is committed to holding fully accountable all those responsible for this tragedy,” Coleman said in a statement.
Captain indicted in deadly tourist boat incident
McKee was not taken into custody on Thursday, and defense lawyer James Hobbs said hes arranging for his client to surrender next week.
David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News. Hes previously worked for The New York Post, Oakland Tribune and Los Angeles Herald Examiner.