17 dead as tourist boat sinks in US lake

A tourist boat capsized and sank in a sudden storm on a lake in Missouri leaving 17 dead, authorities said Friday after divers recovered the bodies of the last people who were missing.

The accident occurred the night before in full view of witnesses, at least one of whom captured video of the small boat bobbing in rough waters on Table Rock Lake near the city of Branson, a popular holiday destination.

The boat was seen struggling to reach shore against strong winds, before succumbing to the waves and beginning to sink.

Police said 31 people were aboard the amphibious vessel, known as a duck boat for its wheels that allow it to ride on land and float low on the water.

Some passengers were able to swim to shore, but the death toll quickly climbed as divers headed back in the water Friday morning to search for four people that had yet to be found.

“We found those (missing) within the last hour,” Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman Jason Pace told AFP Friday morning.

Pace said authorities were “in the process of making notification to the families.”

Authorities would not release the ages of the dead until those notifications were completed, but said several of them were children. The boat’s driver had also died, police said.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and the victims in this tragic event,” Missouri Governor Mike Parson told a news conference.

The accident was caused by 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. The other safely reached shore.

People on a nearby larger vessel, known as the Branson Belle, jumped into the water to rescue victims, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said.

Seven people were hospitalized, two in critical condition.

Rick Kettels, who owns the Lakeside Resort, said the storm formed suddenly.

“It just came up real quick,” he told AFP, adding the severe weather struck around 6:15 pm local time.

“I’ve been here most of my life and I never saw a storm this bad,” he added.

Divers located the boat in 80 feet (25 meters) of water, landed on its wheels.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate, and the sheriff urged witnesses to submit any additional video of the accident.

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.

Missouri meteorologist Steve Lindenberg told AFP a string of severe thunderstorms had barreled through the area. Winds reached 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour and a weather warning was issued at approximately 6:30 pm.

The first emergency call about the boat came in about 30 minutes later.

President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences.

“My deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those involved in the terrible boat accident which just took place in Missouri. Such a tragedy, such a great loss. May God be with you all!” he said.

Branson, Missouri, is a vacation destination popular for its theaters and country music, including singer Dolly Parton’s Civil War-themed attraction.

The company Ripley Entertainment owns the capsized boat, having added the “Ride the Ducks” attraction to its roster last year.

“Ride the Ducks” is a seasonal tour through the area’s famed Ozarks region.

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.

No fatalities were reported, but a hospital was evacuated and a manufacturing plant suffered significant damage, according to the state’s emergency operations department. (AFP) Photo by Fouse Photography