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'I thought I was going to die,' mother says after losing family in duck boat accident

Mother who lost family on duck boat speaks
Mother who lost family on duck boat speaks
Posted at 9:42 PM, Jul 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-12 14:09:53-05

BRANSON, Mo.  Tia Coleman told her story of survival Saturday at Cox Medical Center in Branson.

Coleman was among the 14 survivors Thursday when a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake in choopy waters a half-hour after a thunderstorm warning had been issued for the area.

Nine members of Coleman's family, who were on vacation together from the Indianapolis area, were among the 17 people who died. Three of the five children among the dead were Coleman's and her husband also died when the boat capsized.

"If I was able to get a life jacket, I could have saved my babies," Coleman said, fighting back tears. "They could have floated to the top and someone could've grabbed them. And I wasn't able to do that,"

She was joined by family members and her pastor who rushed to Branson after hearing the news. 

Coleman's 13-year-old nephew also was among the survivors along with the boat's captain.

"When that water came over the boat I didn't know what happened," Coleman said. "I had my son right next to me. When the water filled up the boat, I could no longer see, I couldn't feel anyone, I couldn't see. I just remember thinking, 'I got to get out; I got to get out.'"

Coleman said she became concerned for the first time when a large wave came over the boat.

When the boat dipped underwater, Coleman said she hit her head on the boat, perhaps on the ceiling, and could feel herself being sucked out of the boat. 

She remembered feeling how cold the water was, so she knew she was fairly deep already.

"As I was swimming up I was praying, I said, 'Lord, please let me get to my babies,'" Coleman said. "I was kicking and the harder I fought to get to the top, l was getting pulled down.

"I said 'Lord, if I can't make it, there's no use keeping me here,' and I just let go and I started floating."

Eventually, Coleman floated to the top and could feel the warm water. She remembers sticking her hands above water and swallowing 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. "And finally I came up to the surface and I saw the great, big boat out there, like a riverboat. And they were, oh my God, jumping in saving people. They were throwing life rafts out to everybody."

She called the people who pulled her onto the Showboat Branson Belle "angels," but her personal relief quickly abated.

"I didn't see any of my family," Coleman said.

Recorded winds as powerful as 73 mph created four-foot waves, which crested at six feet, according to officials with the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB provided an update of its investigation Saturday evening. It has reviewed video footage from Duck 54, which also was on the water at the time the storm hit but managed to return safely to shore.

The recorder from Duck 7, which sank in foot 40 feet of water and came to rest in 80 feet of water, also has been recovered and was on its way to Washington, D.C., for processing at an NTSB lab.

Eye witness statements also were taken from staff at the Branson Belle.

It remains unclear how much weather-related information was communicated to the crew on the duck boats or how Ride the Ducks gathers and disseminates weather info.

NTSB officials said the company voluntarily suspended operations.

Coleman said no one wore life jackets on the boat and the crew never advised passengers to put them on, even as the waves came crashed in.

"It was said that there are life jackets, but, don't worry, you will not need them," Coleman said. "And we were never told after that to grab them."

She can't remember if the plastic coverings came down over the windows, which are used as a way to keep water out of the vessel.

Coleman isn't sure how she'll move on without her husband, Glenn, and their three children — Reece, 9; Evan, 7; and Arya, 1.

Glenn's mom, Belinda, and sister, Angie,  in-laws, her sister-in-law and her kids died as well. 

"It's very hard to describe," Coleman said. "As a mother, it's very hard to describe. I have never felt that feeling and I would and never wish that on anybody."

She said she wants everyone to remember her family for the beautiful people they were. 

When asked if she's glad that she made it to the surface, she said, "I don't know yet. Time will tell." 

Coleman's doctors are not sure when she'll be released from the hospital.