INDIANAPOLIS — Tia Coleman describes her house as “quiet, very quiet,” the sounds and laughter of her three children and her husband gone.
“It’s a house now. It’s not a home anymore,” Coleman said through tears on Tuesday afternoon, nearly a month after she survived a catastrophic duck boat accident that killed everyone in her immediate family while they were on vacation in Missouri. “I just hear silence.”
With 10 family members surrounding her, Coleman spoke to reporters in her house here Tuesday, struggling to portray her life now without her husband, Glenn, and her three children, Reece, 9, Evan, 7, and Arya, 1. They — and five other members of the extended Coleman family — were among 17 people who died on July 19, when a violent storm hit Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., the waves and wind overcoming the land-water craft, which capsized and sank with 31 aboard. Most of those who died were summer tourists visiting the Ozarks resort town; the boat’s driver also perished.
The Colemans, on a family vacation, lost nine. Coleman and her nephew, Donovan, 13, survived, but she says her day-to-day existence is difficult to comprehend as she attempts to cope.
She said she still wakes up, rolls over and expects to see her husband beside her. She heard the school bus outside one morning and said she almost yelled to her two children, “‘Hurry up, you’re going to miss the bus.’ . . . Then I realized they won’t be getting on any more buses.”
Though the duck boat operator has said the storm came on suddenly, taking everyone by surprise, Coleman has said that the company knew that a storm was brewing and decided to take the water segment of the tour first to get ahead of it. As the boat — along with a second duck boat on the lake — attempted to go back to shore, it was overcome. Coleman was sucked into the lake as the boat went down, but she escaped from under the boat’s canopy and swam to the surface.
Holding a white-and-brown handcrafted pillow with photos of her deceased family members, Coleman said she wants to raise awareness of the dangers duck boats present and to help ensure no other family suffers the pain and loss she is experiencing. She wants to transform her tragedy into citizen action, starting with an online petition that she hopes will persuade Congress to ban the use of duck boats, which are popular in many American cities and resort towns.
Coleman hasn’t changed a thing in her children’s rooms. She can’t bring herself to remove any of the baby’s toys or move her day crib, filled with stuffed animals, from beside the living room couch. She sometimes expects to hear Arya yell out “mama.”
“This is my new normal. I’m trying to get used to an empty house,” she said. “Each day is different. Sometimes I’m okay, and sometimes I’m not.”
She cries, a lot. At times, she wants to be alone with her thoughts and memories. She looks at pictures, recalling one of Evan when he got into a jar of Vaseline and was “so shiny.” Coleman said she is blessed with a large, loving family that is helping her cope. She also said her strong faith in God helps.
“I’m waiting to see what he has in store for me,” she said.
She thanked people nationwide for the many cards, donations and prayers she has received. And she is buoyed by comments from people she doesn’t know who say her story has led them to regain their faith and to show more love for their families. “That does make me happy,” she said. “As a people and a human race, we need each other.”
She knows nothing will bring her family back. But she hopes that bringing about change can make a difference — she wants all unsafe amphibious vehicles to be banned. Her petition says that her family members died because of the “duck boat’s deadly design, which the industry knew about for more than 16 years.”
Coleman, a supervisor in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, urged support for a bill in Washington, introduced by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), to tighten regulations on duck boats. The bill would force duck boat operators to remove the canopies and install devices that would keep the crafts afloat when they face floodwaters and high winds.
The family also has filed two lawsuits on behalf of the family seeking millions of dollars in damages. The lawsuits blame the duck boat industry for decades of “willful ignorance of safety,” pointing to 26 deaths linked to six previous duck boat tragedies, including the 1999 sinking of the Miss Majestic duck boat in Arkansas.