Ozark County family rode Branson Duck Boat a few hours before tragedy
A few hours before 17 people died Thursday when a Branson “Duck Boat” capsized in a storm on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Gainesville residents Doyle and Peggy Johnson rode one of the Duck Boats with their daughter and grandson.
That evening, a friend texted Peggy, “Too bad about the Ducks.”
“I asked her what she meant, and she said, ‘Oh, Peggy, there was a bad accident in the storm.’ At that time, they were saying six people had been killed,” Peggy said Sunday. “I couldn’t believe it. We rode the Ducks that morning.”
The Johnsons were spending a week in Branson at a timeshare they own at Spinnaker Palace View Resort; their daughter and son-in-law Julie and Jason Schofield and their sons Gannon, 3, and Chase, 11, were with them. Originally, all six of them planned to ride the amphibious vehicle that takes tourists on a 70-minute ride that, according to its website, spends half the time on land and half in the water. Peggy had bought five tickets – $29.57 each for the four adults and $16.18 for Chase; Gannon rode for free. But at the last minute, Chase and his dad opted to stay at the condo.
The resort had a special arrangement with the Ride the Ducks attraction that let guests board the Duck Boats at the resort lobby. Peggy and Doyle, with Julie and 3-year-old Gannon, began their ride at 9:30 a.m. Thursday – a hot, sunshiny morning. “There were two boatloads of people staying at the resort,” Peggy said.
“The captain stood at the front by the driver, sort of like a tour guide, facing us,” she said. “You go a ways down Highway 165 where the forest is, and he told us all the stories about what all we were seeing. He said the Duck Boats were Army vehicles – the history of them. We went by the dam, and he told us the history of it. And he told us where the name Taneycomo came from. I’d never ridden the Ducks before, and I thought it was interesting.”
But as the Duck Boat neared the water, Peggy became uneasy. The Johnsons spend a lot of time on their pontoon boat on Bull Shoals Lake, “and we’re very adamant when we take Gannon out on the pontoon that he doesn’t even walk across the platform to go to the water without his life jacket,” Peggy said.
But riding the Duck Boat that morning, no one wore a life jacket.
“I was very uneasy about that the whole time we were on the water,” Peggy said. “The captain told us, ‘Look above, you’ll see the life jackets.’ The adult life jackets were on the right, the kids were on the left, and the infants were in the back. He said, ‘In case you need them, pull that yellow tab,’ and he showed you how to put it on and all that.”
One survivor of the Thursday evening accident said in a news report last week that the captain of the capsized Duck Boat told his passengers they wouldn’t need the life jackets. “I don’t remember our guy saying, ‘You won’t need them,’” Peggy said.
The Duck Boat entered the water near the Branson Belle, Peggy said. The windows on the Duck Boat were open, “and you could see right out. Gannon seemed to like it. But when I saw pictures of the waves that hit the other boat, I thought I would have immediately pulled that yellow tab on the life jackets whether they told us to or not! I’m sure when it started splashing in they shut the windows.”
News reports have said the vinyl windows that locked down and the Duck Boat’s overhead canopy may have deterred passengers trying to escape the sinking Duck Boat Thursday as it filled with water when a sudden, violent storm popped up.
The Johnsons were back at the resort when the storm rolled in late that afternoon. “We had been there since Saturday, and most days, we would go to the pool late in the afternoon. Starting Sunday night, every evening a big, dark cloud would come over, and we would move to the indoor pool. It would rain a little, and we would go back out,” said Peggy. “That night, we were at the pool and I looked up and thought, ‘Boy, that is a really dark cloud over there.’ All at once the wind started blowing. We were about as far from our condo as it is from the Times office up to Guffey’s. We started back, and before we could get there, Chase, who weighs 100 pounds, was being blown off the sidewalk. We had to hold on to him. It came up so hard and fast, and it was really blowing.”
After the storm passed, they noticed a Suburban in the parking lot surrounded by tree limbs. “They couldn’t get the car out without moving the limbs,” she said.
The tragedy gave the Johnsons a lot to think about, and a lot to be thankful for. Of the 31 people on the Duck Boat that sank, 13 passengers and the captain survived. Nine of the 17 people who died were from one Indiana family, including three young children.
Peggy thinks of that when she considers how they originally planned to have six members of her family ride the Duck Boat that day. She thinks of the captain of their Duck Boat. “He said he was a firefighter, and they called him Captain Inferno,” she said. “He said he had several more runs to make that day. I thought later he was probably down there, helping with the rescue after the other boat sank. It’s so terrible.”
‘A freakish deal’
Two other Ozark County grandparents, who asked not to be named, were also in Branson Thursday when the storm hit. They ate an early supper at a restaurant a short way off the Highway 76 “strip” and planned to take their four grandkids to the outdoor Shepherd of the Hill play that night.
“Driving over to Branson, it was a beautiful day,” the granddad said. “We were in the restaurant maybe an hour, and there was never any thought of it storming. But as we were leaving, the lights blinked. And as we walked by some windows, we looked out and the trees were leaning over. We got to the front door, and boy, it was blowing.”
The grandparents and grandkids made it to their car and sat a while, waiting out the storm.
“It really did not rain much. It just blew,” the granddad said. “All of a sudden we saw a police car go by with its lights on. We thought there must have been a wreck somewhere. Then a firetruck went by with its lights on.”
As quickly as the storm came, it left, and the sun came out again. The grandparents made their way to the Shepherd of the Hills property and found the parking lot empty. The outdoor play had been canceled.
“We headed home, and [one of the grandkids] was playing around with her phone and saw on Facebook that a Duck Boat had gone down with 31 people on board,” he said. “It was a freakish deal, how fast that storm came up. It was like that one guy said who was out on the lake fishing with his daughter when it hit. He said he’d never seen anything like it. ”