Grand jury indicts captain in Missouri duck boat sinking

A federal grand jury has accused the captain of a duck boat that sank in Missouri last summer of misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty in the accident that killed 17 people.

The indictment charges Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, who operated Stretch Duck 7 on Table Rock Lake July 19, with a number of violations including:

  • Not properly assessing the weather and going out with lightning in the area;
  • Operating the vessel in violation of conditions and limitations on its Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection (COI);
  • Not telling passengers to put on personal flotation devices;
  • Not speeding up and heading to the nearest shore when severe weather hit;
  • Failing to raise the side curtains when the wind picked up and thus creating a barrier for people to escape.

The vessel, operated by Ride the Ducks Branson, a tour company owned by Florida-based  Ripley Entertainment, Inc., was carrying 29 passengers and two crew members for what was usually a 20-minute ride on the lake near Branson, Mo., when a strong thunderstorm swept through with winds over 70 mph.

The Coast Guard, which earlier found that the captain’s actions contributed to the deaths, has taken the unusual move of convening a Marine Board of Investigation into the accident. In recent years only the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2015 sinking of the cargo vessel El Faro in Hurricane Joaquin, and the 2017 loss of the crab boat Destination in the Bering Sea have led to similar inquiries.

In announcing the board, the Coast Guard released the certificate of inspection for the duck boat that limited operating conditions to winds not to exceed 35 mph and wave heights of 2′ or less.

The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating the disaster and has said the lake was under a severe thunderstorm warning issued about half an hour before the duck boat entered the water. Wind were clocked at up to 73 mph at the time of the sinking, according to the NTSB.

A number of civil lawsuits have been filed in connection with the accident. Tim Garrison, U.S. Attorney for the western district of Missouri, said he’s asked those courts to delay the discovery process that involves lawyers sharing documents and information until the criminal investigation is complete. The 17-count indictment “illustrates the urgency our investigative team has shown in its pursuit,” he said. The investigation is continuing.

McKee was expected to plead not guilty at a court hearing Tuesday, said his lawyer, James Hobbs, of Kansas City. Conviction carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison without parole for each count plus a $250,000 fine.

“We recognize the importance of the grand jury process and are continuing to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s office and other authorities as they determine the facts surrounding the accident,” a Ripley spokesman said.

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

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