Nine members of one family were among 17 people killed when a US tourist boat capsized during a sudden storm on a Missouri lake, relatives told US media on Friday, with accusations they were told there’d be no need for life jackets.
The accident occurred Thursday night in full view of witnesses, at least one of whom captured video of the amphibious vessel bobbing in rough waters on Table Rock Lake near the city of Branson, a popular holiday destination.
“My heart is very heavy. Out of 11 of us there’s only two that’s surviving, that’s me and my nephew” Tia Coleman, her voice breaking, told Fox59 from her hospital bed.
“I lost all of my children. I lost my husband. I lost my mother-in-law and my father-in-law,” along with other relatives, she told the Indianapolis TV station.
Coleman said the boat’s captain had told passengers earlier in their trip that they “won’t need” life jackets.
“He said it when we were in the water,” she told Fox59. “When it was time to grab them, it was too late and I believe that a lot of people could have been spared.”
She added that the water “didn’t look ominous at the very first.”
The New York Times quoted another relative, Carolyn Coleman, as saying three generations of the Indianapolis family, including four children, died.
They had rented a van and travelled to Branson for their annual road trip, she told the newspaper.
Police said 31 people were aboard the vessel, known as a duck boat for its wheels that allow it to ride on land and float low on the water.
The hybrid nature of such craft has previously raised safety questions.
The boat was seen struggling to reach shore against strong winds, before succumbing to the waves and beginning to sink.
The dead ranged in age from one to 70 years of age, and included the boat’s driver, according to the Stone County Sheriff’s office.
He was one of two crew, US media reported. The other, who survived, was in charge when the craft owned by Ripley Entertainment company took to the water.
Several people were injured.
The incident occurred during heavy winds as a storm moved over the man-made lake in southern Missouri. The duck boat was one of two in the water at the time but the other safely reached shore.
People on a nearby larger vessel, the Branson Belle, jumped into the water to rescue victims, Sheriff Doug Rader said.
“(Rescuers) got there quickly,” eyewitness Curt Elleman told MSNBC.
“The first rescuing was private boats… and they began pulling people out immediately,” he said.
Divers located the boat on its wheels in 80 feet (25 meters) of water.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent a team to investigate.
Among the unanswered questions were whether the boat crew was aware of weather warnings, and whether passengers were wearing life vests.
“From what I understand, there was life jackets in the duck (boat),” said Rader.
Rick Kettels, who owns the Lakeside Resort, said the storm formed suddenly at around 6:15 pm local time.
“It just came up real quick,” he told AFP. “I’ve been here most of my life and I never saw a storm this bad.”
Missouri meteorologist Steve Lindenberg told AFP a string of severe thunderstorms had barrelled through the area.
Winds reached 74 miles (119 kilometres) per hour and a weather warning was issued at approximately 6:30 pm. The first emergency call about the boat was placed approximately 30 minutes later.
Branson, Missouri, is a vacation destination popular for its theatres and country music, including singer Dolly Parton’s Civil War-themed attraction.
As the southern region near the Arkansas border struggled to come to grips with the tragedy, President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump sent condolences.
The storm system that hit Missouri also struck much of the Midwest late Thursday, according to meteorologists. Several tornadoes tore through Iowa to the north, causing injuries as well as damage to a number of buildings.