When Tia Coleman and her family boarded the duck boat at the dock on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, on Thursday afternoon, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the 90s.
Her boys, Reece and Evan, couldn’t wait to get out on the water and cool off.
“The captain did say something about life jackets,” Coleman recalled Saturday. “He said, ‘Above you are your life jackets. There are three sizes. He said, ‘I’m gonna show you where they are, but you won’t need them. So, no need to worry.’ So we didn’t grab them.”
As she spoke during a news conference at the Cox Medical Center in Branson, she frequently paused to break down in tears. She and her 13-year-old nephew, Donovan Hall, were the only members of their family to survive what they had expected to be a fun outing on the lake, one of several ventures they had incorporated into their annual summer vacation.
She said she has always loved being on the water, but now that’s all changed.
“I never want to be on any boat ever again in my life, anybody’s boat,” Coleman said.
The Indianapolis woman remembered taking a seat at the front of the duck boat, an amphibious vessel modeled after ones used in World War II. Her oldest son Reece, 9, who she said was on the autism spectrum, sat next to her.
Other family members cradled her baby girl, Arya, and watched her other boy, 7-year-old Evan. Her husband, Glenn, sat behind Tia with his parents, Horace and Belinda, his sister, Angela, and her son, Max. Tia’s uncle, Ray Coleman, 76, the oldest member of the family, and her nephew, Donovan, also joined the “Ride The Duck” tour.
A total of 11 Colemans took up most of the space on the boat.
A crew member mentioned there was a storm brewing, but as they pulled away from the dock the sky appeared clear, she said.
“The water was splashing. It was so hot. We thought this was great. But when a big wave came in, that’s when I got nervous. And then the next big swell.”
In a flash, the sky grew dark, the wind started to howl at 73 miles per hour, nearly the force of hurricane gusts. The waves crested at six feet.
The suddenly rough water capsized the duck boat, turning the pleasure voyage into one panic and chaos, Tia Coleman said.
“I’ve always love water. I don’t know if it’s being a Picese or what, but I’ve always loved water,” she said. “But when that water came over the boat I didn’t know what happened. I had my son right next to me, but when the water filled up the boat I could no longer see, I couldn’t feel anybody. I just remember saying, ‘I gotta get out! I gotta get out!'”
She recalled hitting her head on what she thought was the ceiling of the boat and then being in the water.
“When I got out into the water, it was ice cold. And I remember as we were going [out] into the water, they said the lake stays pretty warm, like in the 80s. So I knew from it being so cold that I’m close to the bottom, I’m not close to the top,” she said.
“I just remember kicking and swimming, swimming up to the top,” she said. “And as I was swimming up, I was praying, just saying, ‘Lord, please let me get to my babies. I gotta get to my babies, I gotta get to my babies.'”
But the harder she fought to break the surface, she felt something was pulling her down. She felt like giving up.
“I kept fighting, and kept fighting, and then I said, ‘Lord if I can’t make it there’s no use to keeping me here.’ And so I just let go and I started floating, and as I started floating I felt the water temperature change and it got warmer,” she said. “And as it got warmer, I knew I was to the top so I stuck my hand out and I just kept swallowing tons of water.”
When she broke the surface, she saw a riverboat nearby and people aboard were jumping in or throwing life jackets and life rafts to those who had been dumped in the water.
“The waves were crashing over my face and every time I’d get my head a little bit above water I’d scream ‘Help! Help!'” she said. “They were throwing life rafts out to everybody, but I couldn’t reach it, I couldn’t get there in time and so somehow I managed to get to the boat and these beautiful people, angels … they pulled me up. And when they pulled me up onto the boat I didn’t see any of my family, but I believe I survived by the grace of God and by good Samaritans.”
Authorities said 17 of the 31 people, including two crew members, aboard the capsized boat died.
Brian Young, the lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said late Saturday that divers retrieved a recorder of the boat’s trip data, the equivalent of an airplane’s black box, and it was flown to Washington, D.C., to be analyzed.
The cause of the tragic incident remains under investigation.
But Richard Clifford, a veteran Chicago maritime and aviation attorney, said it was obvious the duck boat, and another one that made it back to shore, should not have been on the water.
“For some inexplicable reason, these two ducks were out there,” Clifford told ABC News.
He said that in the past 20 years, 43 people have been killed and more than 100 injured in duck boat mishaps, including one in Seattle in 2015 that killed five people when a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle swerved into oncoming traffic on a bridge and slammed into a bus.
Clifford said duck boat operators are not required to check weather reports and wave heights before leaving the docks, and most of the operators have minimal training and experience maneuvering through rough waters.
“These boats were never really built and designed for challenging waters,” Clifford said. “You don’t have highly-trained operators. You don’t have a vessel that’s really designed to stand those kinds of conditions. You don’t have the adequate distribution of the life-saving devices, people aren’t required to wear them.
“When you hear the horror stories of people being in the water without life jackets on and life jackets just floating around, that’s a problem.”
Missouri Sen. Clair McCaskill vowed on Saturday to propose legislation to make duck boats safer, although she did not say specifically what the suggested regulations should be. Clifford said that for starters there should be a requirement for operators to check the National Weather Service reports 30 to 60 minutes before taking passengers out.
Meanwhile, Tia Coleman said she has been getting support from friends, relatives and her church pastor who have traveled to Missouri from Indiana to be at her side.
“The biggest thing that stood out to me is I felt like if I was able to get a life jacket I could have saved my babies because they could have at least floated up to the top and somebody would have grabbed them,” she said, her voice cracking again with emotion. “And I wasn’t able to do that.”
While she and her nephew, Donovan, will remain in the hospital for a few days, Tia Coleman said she can’t fathom what life will be like when she goes home.
“Going home I already know is going to be completely difficult,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Since I’ve had a home it’s always been filled. It’s always been filled with little feet and laughter, and my husband. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it.”
She asked people to pray for her and remember her nine lost family members “for the beautiful people they were.”
She then described each of them:
— “I lost my husband. He was so loving and he didn’t look like he was, but he was. He was so loving.
— “My oldest son, Reece, was on the autism spectrum but he made every day worth living. And he was the happiest, sweetest little boy anybody would ever want to meet.”
— “My son Evan, who was 7, was extremely smart, quick and witty. He loved life and he was a great brother, big brother and little brother.”
— “And then my baby, Arya. She was only 1 and she had a thousand personalities wrapped up in her one. She would blow kisses and she would fight. She was a little fireball and my only girl.”
— “My father-in-law [Horace Coleman] had a heart of gold. He would give anything to anybody.”
— “My mother-in-law [Belinda Coleman] was like a second mom. She was always there with a supportive word.”
— “My sister-in-law [Angela Coleman], who I called sister because she was. She was so loving and she would do anything for her family.”
— “My uncle, Ray Coleman, was the oldest of the Colemans. He liked to laugh and have a good time.
— “And my nephew, Max, was the sweetest baby ever. He loved big hugs and warm kisses.”