Survivor who lost nine relatives in duck boat sinking recalls final words


“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, recounting the ordeal from a hospital bed.

When the Indianapolis woman came up for air, she was alone, Coleman told television station KOLR on Saturday.

She spotted a rescue boat and swam as fast as she could.

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

Tia Coleman is comforted by her sister Leeta Bigbee after speaking to the media on Saturday. Source: AP via AAP

Others killed included a Missouri couple who had just celebrated a birthday; another Missouri couple who was 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.

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.

Tia Coleman’s husband and three children, ages 9, 7 and 1 all died on Thursday night. Source: AP Photo via AAP
Flowers left by mourners rest on the ticket counter at the closed Ride the Ducks attraction Saturday. Source: AP via AAP

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.

Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard.

Fourteen people survived, including two adults who remained hospitalised on Saturday.

Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew were the only two of the 11 members of her family who boarded the boat to make it out alive.

Another survivor was 12-year-old Alicia Dennison, of Illinois, who says her grandmother, 64-year-old Leslie Dennison, saved her from drowning.

Alicia’s father, Todd Dennison, told the Kansas City Star that his daughter recalled feeling her grandmother below her, pushing her upward after the boat capsized.

Another young survivor was 14-year-old Loren Smith of Osceola, Arkansas.

She suffered a concussion, but her father, 53-year-old retired maths teacher Steve Smith, and her 15-year-old brother, Lance, died.

Flowers left on the vehicle of William and Janice Bright as a memorial were gathered by William Bright’s sister Karen Abbot. Source: ABACA via AAP

Others killed included 65-year-old William Bright and his 63-year-old wife, Janice.

The couple had recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary and had talked about Branson being one of their last big trips, recalled neighbour Barbara Beck.

Another Missouri couple killed in the accident were 69-year-old William Asher and 68-year-old Rosemarie Hamann.

The St Louis-area couple had been celebrating Hamman’s birthday earlier in the week.

Chance brought the Colemans aboard the doomed vessel.

Tia Coleman said her family initially lined up for the wrong tour so they had to switch out their tickets for the 6:30pm ride.

She says the crew showed passengers where the life jackets were but said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you won’t need it’,” Coleman said.

When swells crashed into the boat, they were told to stay seated, she says.

While the boat captain survived, its driver, 73-year-old Bob Williams, did not.

Duck boats sit idle in the parking lot of Ride the Ducks on Saturday. Source: AP Photo via AAP