SPRINGFIELD, MO (KCTV/AP) -- Charges have been filed against the captain of a Branson tourist boat that sank and killed 17 people, including nine people from an Indiana family, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
A federal indictment shows 51-year-old Kenneth Scott McKee is facing 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship's officer resulting in death. The July accident occurred when an amphibious vessel known as a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake when a sudden and severe storm rolled into the area. The boats were originally designed for military use in World War II but had been refurbished as a tourist attraction.
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. Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats, suspended operations following the accident.
McKee could face up to 10 years in prison if he's convicted of the charges against him.
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.
The sinking killed nine members of Tia Coleman's family, including her three young children and husband, who were vacationing from Indiana. 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.
A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation but has said the company has cooperated with authorities.
The vessels first take tourists on a trip through Branson, a Midwestern destination for country music shows and entertainment venues. The amphibious vehicles then travel to Table Rock Lake for a short excursion on water.
Weather was calm when the vessel known as a Stretch Duck 7 began its trip on July 19, but investigators have contended that operators had ample warning that a strong storm was approaching.
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.
Video and audio from the boat, recovered by divers, showed that the lake was calm when the boat entered the water. But the weather suddenly turned violent and, within minutes, the boat sank.
The wind speed at the time of the accident was more than 70 mph, just short of hurricane force, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly exceeding 60 mph.
The wave height wasn't known, but cellphone video shot by passengers on a nearby excursion boat showed waves that appeared to be far greater than 2 feet (0.61 meters) high.
In addition to the weather, the Coast Guard has said it was looking into regulatory compliance of the boat and crew member duties and qualifications.
Branson is among several places around the country where the amphibious vehicles offer excursions. 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. In 2015, five college students died and more than 70 people were hurt when a duck boat veered into a charter bus on a bridge in Seattle. Two Hungarian tourists died in 2010 when a stalled duck boat was struck by a tugboat-guided barge on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
Duck-boat passenger and survivor Tia Coleman, whose husband Glenn and children Arya, Evan, and Reese were killed in the July 19 tragedy sent a statement on Thursday.
“While nothing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grateful that the U.S. Attorney’s 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.
Robert J. Mongeluzzi, whose law firm represents Coleman and several other victims, commended the “methodical and laser-focused investigative work of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri that exposes the reckless conduct of Ripley Entertainment’s employees, which operated the Duck Boat on Table Rock Lake.”
“We are confident that further investigation will reveal that the failures which led to this tragedy go far beyond the role of a single duck-boat Captain and implicate others in the Ripley’s entertainment empire,” Mongeluzzi said.
Mongeluzzi’s colleague, Attorney Andrew R. Duffy, said, “This indictment highlights the outrageousness of the decision to operate the death-trap duck boat in an apparent attempt to beat a widely and accurately forecasted storm.”
An attorney at the law firm, Jeffrey P. Goodman, said, “Our clients fully support today’s action and the continuing work of the prosecutors to punish the individuals and companies involved.”