BRANSON, Mo — “Grab the baby!”

Those were the last words Tia Coleman recalls her sister-in-law yelling before the tourist boat they were on sank into a Missouri lake, killing 17 people, including nine of Coleman’s family members.

A huge wave hit, scattering passengers into Table Rock Lake near Branson, Coleman said, recounting the ordeal from a hospital bed. When the Indianapolis woman came up for air, she was alone. She prayed.

“I said, ‘Jesus please keep me, just keep me so I can get to my children,”‘ Coleman told television station KOLR.

She spotted a rescue boat and swam as fast as she could.

Coleman’s husband and three children; her 45-year-old sister-in-law and 2-year-old nephew; her mother-in-law and father-in-law and her husband’s uncle all died Thursday night in the deadliest accident of its kind in nearly two decades. Others killed included a Missouri couple who had just celebrated a birthday; another Missouri couple on what was planned as their last extended vacation; an Illinois woman who died while saving her granddaughter’s life; an Arkansas father and son; and a retired pastor who was the boat’s operator.

State and federal investigators were trying to determine what sent the vessel, originally built for military use in World War II, to its demise. An initial assessment blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength, but it wasn’t clear why the amphibious vehicle even ventured into the water.

Coleman said the crew told passengers they were going into the water first, before the land-based part of their tour, because of the incoming storm. The area had been under a severe thunderstorm watch for hours and a severe thunderstorm warning for more than 30 minutes before the boat sank.

Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said it was the company’s only accident in more than 40 years of operation. The company hasn’t commented on Coleman’s account of the tour, which usually begins with a tour of downtown Branson, known for its country shows and entertainment, before the vessel enters the lake for a short ride on the water.

Company President Jim Pattison Jr. said the boat captain had 16 years of experience, and the business monitors weather.

Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard. Fourteen people survived, including two adults who remained hospitalized Saturday. Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew were the only members of her family who boarded the boat to make it out alive.

Another survivor was 12-year-old Alicia Dennison, of Illinois, who said her grandmother, 64-year-old Leslie Dennison, saved her from drowning. Alicia’s father, Todd Dennison, told the Kansas City Star that his daughter recalled feeling her grandmother below her, pushing her upward after the boat capsized.

Another young survivor was 14-year-old Loren Smith of Osceola, Arkansas. She suffered a concussion, but her father, Steve Smith, and her 15-year-old brother, Lance, died.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.