A federal grand jury has indicted two supervisors on charges of misconduct and neglect in the Missouri duck boat accident that killed 17 people — the deadliest duck boat accident ever.
Curtis Lanham, 36, general manager at Ride the Ducks Branson, and Charles Baltzell, 76, the operations supervisor, were named in a superseding 47-count indictment unsealed late last week (to access the indictment, scroll down to the far left corner of the release) that includes Capt. Kenneth Scott McKee, 52, originally indicted last year on charges of misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty. All three have pleaded not guilty.
The indictment alleges Lanham created a work atmosphere on the boats “where the concern for profit overshadowed the concern for safety.”
The vessel, Stretch Duck 7, operated by Ripley Entertainment Inc., was carrying 29 passengers and two crewmembers for what was usually a 20-minute ride on Table Rock Lake July 19 when a strong thunderstorm swept through with winds over 70 mph.
Lanham allegedly failed to establish training requirements for monitoring the weather or require adequate staffing during the tours and didn’t let Baltzell have access to his Ripley e-mail account, which got weather alerts from a monitoring service.
Baltzell failed to monitor and assess the weather and let the vessel enter the water when lightning was in the area, the indictment charges.
Both were accused of letting McKee operate the vessel in violation of the Coast Guard’s Certificate of Inspection (COI) that limits operating conditions to winds not to exceed 35 mph and wave heights of 2' or less.
The allegations against McKee include the following: not telling passengers to put on personal flotation devices; not speeding up and heading to the nearest shore when severe weather hit; and failing to raise the side curtains when the wind picked up, thus creating a barrier for people to escape.
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. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also is investigating and has said the lake was under a severe thunderstorm warning issued about half an hour before the duck boat entered the water.
Proposed federal legislation is calling for earlier NTSB recommendations on duck boats to be mandatory. After 13 people died in 1999 in a duck boat accident in Arkansas, the NTSB said the Coast Guard should require the military style amphibious vessels to have enough reserve buoyancy to float even if flooded. If not, they should install new canopies that don’t restrict escape. And if canopies have been removed and reserve buoyancy is inadequate, passengers should be required to don life jackets before leaving the dock.
The legislation also limits weather conditions in which duck boats can operate.
Lanham’s lawyer, Tom Bath, said the sinking was “a horrible and tragic accident; caused not by misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty, as alleged by the government, but by an act of nature that was unprecedented on this lake and therefore unforeseeable for Curtis and others….Curtis is a Coast Guard certified captain and he would never knowingly put others’ lives at risk.” Baltzell’s lawyer could not be reached.
“We continue to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s office and other agencies as they investigate the facts surrounding the unprecedented storm and resulting accident on Table Rock Lake that occurred last July,” said Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a Ripley spokesman. “While the United States Attorney has decided to bring criminal charges as a result of the accident, all persons charged are entitled to a strong presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”