BRANSON, Mo. — The Coleman family had initially thought of going to Florida for their annual vacation, but the drive was too long for some elderly relatives who wanted to join. Instead, the Colemans settled on going to Branson, a southwestern Missouri resort city about seven hours away from their hometown of Indianapolis. They rented a van, and on Tuesday the family of 11 spanning three generations headed out on the midsummer journey.
Two days later, all 11 got on an amphibious duck boat for what should have been a 70-minute guided tour around a picturesque Ozarks lake. Tia Coleman, 34, said the boat company suggested doing the “water part” of the tour before sightseeing on land because a storm was expected to roll in.
The extended Coleman family — including Tia, her husband and three children, ages 9, 7 and 1 — boarded the boat, expecting to get ahead of the weather. She said the boat’s captain informed the 29 passengers aboard that there were life jackets above them but said they didn’t need to wear them.
Not long after the duck boat started out into the water, a violent thunderstorm hit, and the boat struggled against the turbulent waves suddenly roiling Table Rock Lake. The waves got stronger, but Coleman didn’t think much of it at first, believing it was just part of the experience. Sitting near the front, she started to worry when a giant wave crashed over the bow. She never heard anyone declare an emergency, she said.
Then warm water started to rush in, filling the boat, she said. She lost sight of her family, even her son who had been sitting right next to her. She remembers crashing into something hard, then she was out, completely surrounded by cold water — which made her think she had to be pretty deep.
“I just remember kicking and swimming,” Tia Coleman told reporters, sitting in a wheelchair next to family members at Cox Medical Center Branson on Saturday. “The harder I fought to get to the top, the more I kept getting pulled down . . . I just want to get to my babies. I just want to get to my babies.”
She slowly surfaced through warmer water, screaming for help as she broke into the evening air — and chaos. People were jumping into the water, hands were reaching out.
“When they pulled me up, I didn’t see any of my family,” she said.
Most of them were dead, it would turn out. Of 17 people who perished after the boat capsized and sank, nine of them were members of the Coleman family, the youngest was Coleman’s 1-year-old daughter. Only two of the Coleman group on the boat survived, Tia and her 13-year-old nephew, Donovan; her husband and all of her three children died.
Earlier, from a hospital bed, Tia Coleman told reporters that everyone on the boat was told to stay seated, and everyone did — none grabbing for the life jackets above them because they were told they didn’t need them: “Nobody, nobody — when that boat is found, all those life jackets are going to be on there.”
The last thing she heard before the boat sank was a scream from her sister-in-law: “Grab the baby!”
Her voice shaking Friday evening, she said the life jackets could have made a difference: “If I was able to get a life jacket, I could have saved my babies,” she said. “I wasn’t able to do that.”
In total, 14 people survived the Thursday evening tragedy — fewer than half the boat’s passengers and crew.
The tragedy was a sudden departure from what had been, for many, a beautiful summer day in the Midwestern retreat. Dark clouds, whipping winds and heavy rains had abruptly turned a routine tour into a disaster.
Coleman’s description of what she was told ahead of the tour contradicts what the boat company has said about the storm; company officials have said the thunderstorm was a surprise and overwhelmed the boat. The National Weather Service before noon had predicted the possibility of serious storms and high winds by late Thursday afternoon and issued a warning that a storm was imminent at 6:32 p.m.; the boat sank at about 7 p.m.
Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, parent company of Ride the Ducks, said Friday that the storm came on suddenly and took the crew by surprise. A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday after Coleman spoke to reporters.
Carolyn Coleman, of Georgia — aunt to Tia Coleman’s husband — questioned why her family members ended up in jeopardy, saying the disaster could have been prevented.
“Why did that boat even go out?” Carolyn Coleman said Saturday by phone. “When you’re on vacation and you’re touring, you expect whoever’s running these facilities to be alert on weather and anything else in the surroundings that could bring harm to anyone.”
The passengers who died came from four states. William Asher, 69; Rosemarie Hamann, 68; Janice Bright, 63; and William Bright, 65, were from Missouri. Two — Steve Smith, 53; and Lance Smith, 15 — were from Arkansas. One, Leslie Dennison, 64, was from Illinois. Nine were from Indiana, all from the Coleman family: Angela, 45; Belinda, 69; Ervin, 76; Glenn, 40; Horace, 70; Reece, 9; Evan, 7; Maxwell, 2; and Arya, 1.
The driver, Branson resident Robert “Bob” Williams, 73, was among the dead.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, and officials said Saturday that they believe the boat has a camera inside, possibly with audio recordings. They have yet to review evidence from the boat because it is still sitting 80 feet below the lake’s surface.
Ride the Ducks has voluntarily stopped its operations while the investigation is ongoing.
Branson, near the Arkansas border with a population of 10,500, sees about 8 million tourists annually and is a destination for country music, amusement parks and outdoor activities. Among its popular attractions are the duck boats; Ride the Ducks has been in Branson for more than four decades. The accident shook up the community, which joined to help the survivors and gathered for vigils.
“When tourists come to Branson, they’re our family, and we want to take care of our family. Branson is a city of smiles,” city spokeswoman Melody Pettit said Friday afternoon as she left Branson City Hall, where staffers were cleaning up leftover food and water donations for the victims. “Right now, we’re hurting and we’re not smiling.”
Santino Tomasetti arrived at the Showboat Branson Belle, a riverboat restaurant not far from where the boat sank, just as first responders were pulling people out of the water. Those who made it to shore were shivering, in shock, drained — and Tomasetti scurried to get dry clothing and chairs so paramedics could examine them. It was then, he said, that reality started to hit them.
“There were a lot of people who just, the second they had a minute to calm down, they were crying. They were starting to panic,” Tomasetti said, noting that he wanted to help in any way possible.
On Friday night, hundreds of community members and tourists lit candles, prayed and sang for the victims and their families, gathering outside the office of Ride the Ducks Branson, the company that owned and operated the boat. Tomasetti stood in the front of the crowd in the embrace of his loved ones, all in tears. Outside the office were the cars that the victims had left before they boarded the boat. Josh Daniel, who lives nearby, placed one flower on each car earlier that day.
“It broke us all,” he said.
The cars later were covered with flowers, teddy bears, balloons and handwritten signs. Daniel Scott took a knee as he placed one hand against the passenger-side door of a white SUV and prayed for the family that lost nine of its members.
Soon, the crowd broke into song amid sniffles and sobs: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art” and “It Is Well With My Soul.”
At Rock Lane Resort and Marina, a rowdy crowd and a live band that had been playing country music at a tiki bar suddenly went quiet as people began to gather at a hasty memorial that included candles, roses and teddy bears. Two young men sat in front, lighting tiny red candles. Neither of them knew the victims, but they said they felt compelled to join, both to say prayers and show gratitude.
“If it wasn’t for them people, we wouldn’t have a town,” said Stephen Lyons, who is in construction and often works on vacation homes in Branson. Lyons said he owes his livelihood to people like those who were on the duck boat on Thursday — millions of tourists who come to Branson every year and fuel the town’s economy.
“They could’ve gone anywhere else in the world, but they came here,” said the other young man, Stephen Noe.
Gripping footage from the lake showed the boat seesawing and lurching in unrelenting waves, as 65-mph gusts of wind hit it with spray. Before long, the small, flat-bottomed half-boat half-bus sank, plunging 80 feet to the bottom of the lake. One other duck boat was on the lake Thursday and made it to shore.
David Plummer, associate pastor at Noble Hill Baptist Church, said that as he watched the footage online, he believed the driver continued steering the boat even as the water swallowed it.
“Lord help him,” Plummer remembered thinking. “He didn’t have a chance. I watched him. That man gave his life.”
Mark Berman and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux in Washington contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Tia Coleman as saying “I just remember kicking and screaming.” It has been corrected.