KANSAS CITY (AP) — The captain of a tourist boat that sank in southwest Missouri and killed 17 people, including nine members of an Indiana family, didn’t 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.
The federal indictment shows Kenneth Scott McKee faces 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship’s officer resulting in death. The deaths occurred after the duck boat, a refurbished amphibious vessel originally used by the military during World War II, sank during a storm in July .
U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said the 51-year-old McKee also is accused of failing to properly assess the weather before and after the boat went into Table Rock Lake near Branson, a Midwestern tourist town known for country music shows and entertainment venues.
“This is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts in this matter,” Garrison said during a news conference in Springfield, adding he couldn’t release specifics about the investigation.
Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats and suspended the operation following the accident, didn’t respond to messages from the Associated Press. McKee’s attorney declined comment.
If convicted, McKee could face up to 10 years in prison for each count and a fine of $250,000. Garrison said he expects McKee to surrender.
Tia Coleman — whose husband, three young children and five other family members died in the sinking — released a statement Thursday saying she was pleased an indictment had been filed. Coleman was among 14 people who survived the sinking.
“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.
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 survivors against Ripley Entertainment and other companies involved with the manufacture and operation of the boats. Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing Coleman and several others, said he’s confident the federal investigation will go beyond McKee.
The U.S. Coast Guard had found probable cause the accident resulted from McKee’s “misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties,” according to an August court filing. The U.S. attorney’s office said 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.
A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation but has said the company cooperated with authorities.
On Thursday, Garrison said McKee violated conditions specified in the boat’s certificate of inspection by failing to tell passengers to put on personal floatation devices and not immediately increasing speed and driving to the nearest shore, according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges McKee allowed the boat’s plastic side curtains to be lowered, which blocked the exits, and didn’t instruct passengers to put on flotation devices or prepare them to abandon ship even after the bilge alarm sounded twice.
The vessel first took tourists on a trip through Branson. The amphibious vehicle then traveled 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 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.
Garrison said McKee violated those limitations when he put the boat into the lake.