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Pump removed before Branson duck boat tragedy, replaced with less efficient ones

Change approved by Coast Guard
Posted: 7:00 PM, Apr 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-08 20:00:21-04
Duck boat case referred to federal prosecutors

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A powerful water pump was removed and replaced with less efficient ones before a duck boat sank on Table Rock Lake last summer, killing 17 people.

The change in water pumps was approved by the U.S. Coast Guard.

As 41 Action News previously reported last summer, the boat used to have a Higgins pump, which can dump up to 250 gallons of water per minute off a boat.

That pump was replaced with electric pumps only capable of extracting 20 gallons of water per minute.

“The U.S. Coast Guard regularly inspected Ride The Ducks Branson boats,” said Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment, which owns the duck boats. “The Higgins pumps were removed and replaced with independent electric bilge pumps with Coast Guard input and oversight, and were ultimately approved as meeting all safety requirements before any boat was allowed on the water.”

Smagala-Potts also said the Coast Guard approved the change in bilge pumps before Ripley Entertainment owned the duck boats.

As the 41 Action News Investigators reported last summer, the ill-fated duck boat did have trouble with past inspections.

One of the conditions the Coast Guard set for changing the bilge pumps was prohibiting duck boat operation on the water with waves of two feet or more.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board said the waters on Table Rock Lake appeared calm when the duck boats entered the water.

But just five minutes later, conditions drastically changed, and waves reached four feet with winds in excess of 70 miles per hour.

"Our employees complied with the Coast Guard’s guidance regarding operation of the boats, based on water and weather conditions when the boats entered the lake,” Smagala-Potts said.

But the report also indicated a severe weather warning specifically mentioning Table Rock Lake was issued more than 20 minutes before the boats entered the water.

Smagala-Potts said she couldn’t comment on the warning because of multiple lawsuits and pending investigations.

With those open lawsuits and investigations, Ripley Entertainment won't operate the duck boats for the 2019 season.

The boats will be placed in storage, and Smagala-Potts couldn't say if or when they might return.

Instead, the company is starting a new attraction at the same site, which will be called Branson Top Ops.

The patriotic-themed experience will feature an interactive outdoor maze, indoor laser tag and other options with a target opening date around Memorial Day.

Ten percent of all proceeds for the 2019 season, with a minimum amount of $100,000, will be donated to first responders. Specifically, local police, firefighters and EMS could see that benefit.

Additionally, all first responders and military will be offered discounted admission.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has included prohibiting duck boats from operating during severe weather warnings as part of a bill he introduced in Congress.

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