Park the Ducks — Permanently

"On amphibious passenger vehicles that cannot remain afloat when flooded, canopies can represent an unacceptable risk to passenger safety," NTSB's 2002 report said.

Hot Springs, Ark. Seattle. Philadelphia. Liverpool, England. London, England. Branson, Mo. The common element among these cities: duck boat sinkings or fires during the past 19 years.

The deaths of 17 people aboard a duck boat during a severe storm July 19 on Table Rock Lake in Branson should not have happened. While the probable cause of this latest duck boat tragedy was undetermined at press time for this issue, we know the amphibious passenger vehicle had a canopy and sank very quickly. According to one survivor, it entered the lake while operators should have known the area was under a severe thunderstorm warning. She said none of the passengers was wearing a life jacket when the vehicle went down, predicting that divers and investigators would find all of the life jackets still on board.

Duck boats are surplus, converted World War II U.S. military vehicles or purpose-made vehicles of similar design. They have been involved in a number of serious or fatal accidents on land, as well. But on the water—their amphibious capability makes them popular tourist attractions in a number of U.S. cities—they're "death traps," a Philadelphia lawyer involved in two duck boat fatality cases told the Associated Press.

It's hard to disagree. In April 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board's report1 on the Hot Springs sinking in May 1999 showed that the Miss Majestic had no watertight bulkheads, no reserve buoyancy, and its canopy was a major impediment to the passengers' survival. (This sinking killed 13 people ranging in age from 3 to 50, and the vehicle's life jackets were still stowed in racks above the seats when it was salvaged.) The tour operator's maintenance program was inadequate and the Coast Guard's inspection program for the vehicle was "inadequate and cursory," according to the board. "On amphibious passenger vehicles that cannot remain afloat when flooded, canopies can represent an unacceptable risk to passenger safety," NTSB's report said. Inadequate maintenance of the vehicle was the cause of the sinking, with lack of reserve buoyancy and inadequate Coast Guard oversight contributing.

Almost 20 years apart, the Branson and Hot Springs sinkings are eerily similar. At this point, the Branson tragedy shows the peril of failing to implement safety recommendations from past accidents. It is clear these vehicles should not be in passenger service.

Reference
1. https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/MAR0201.pdf

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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