KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charges have been filed against the captain of a tourist boat that sank in a southwest Missouri lake in July and killed 17 people, including nine members of an Indiana family, federal prosecutors said Thursday.
A federal indictment shows 51-year-old Kenneth Scott McKee is facing 17 counts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty by a ship's officer resulting in death. The deaths occurred when an amphibious vessel known as a duck boat sank during a sudden and severe storm.
McKee failed to tell passengers to put on their flotation devices or prepare to abandon ship as waves crashed into the boat, which was originally designed for military use in World War II but had been refurbished as a tourist attraction, according to the indictment.
He also is accused of not properly assessing the weather before or after the boat went into Table Rock Lake near the tourist town of Branson, U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison said during a news conference in Springfield.
"This is the beginning, not the end, of our efforts in this matter," Garrison said, adding that he couldn't comment on specifics about the investigation.
Ripley Entertainment, the company that operated the boats and suspended the operation following the accident, didn't immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press. McKee's attorney declined comment.
Tia Coleman — who lost her husband, three children and five other family members in the sinking — released a statement Thursday saying she was pleased an indictment had been filed.
"While nothing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grateful that the U.S. Attorney's Office is fighting for justice for my family, and the other victims, and is committed to holding fully accountable all those responsible for this tragedy," said Coleman, who was among 14 people who survived the sinking.
The U.S. Coast Guard had found probable cause that the accident resulted from McKee's "misconduct, negligence, or inattention to the duties," according to an August court filing. The U.S. attorney's office added that the captain of a second duck boat that safely made it to shore during the storm acted in a "grossly negligent manner," though the court filing didn't elaborate on those findings.
The sinking killed Coleman's relatives while they vacationed from Indiana. The other people killed included two couples from Missouri, 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 on land.
Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of victims, their relatives and survivors of the sinking against Ripley Entertainment and other companies involved with the manufacture and operation of the boats. Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney representing Coleman and several others who filed lawsuits, said he's confident the investigation will go beyond McKee.
A spokeswoman for Ripley Entertainment has repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation but has said the company has cooperated with authorities.
Garrison said McKee violated conditions specified in the boat's certificate of inspection by failing to tell passengers to put on personal floatation devices and not immediately increasing speed and driving to the nearest shore, according to the indictment.
The indictment also alleges McKee allowed the boat's plastic side curtains to be lowered, which blocked the exits, and didn't instruct passengers to put on flotation devices or prepare them to abandon ship even after the bilge alarm sounded twice.
The vessel first took tourists on a trip through Branson, a Midwestern destination for country music shows and entertainment venues about 170 miles (274 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock, Arkansas. The amphibious vehicle then traveled to Table Rock Lake for a short excursion on water.
Weather was calm when the vessel known as a Stretch Duck 7 began its trip on July 19, but investigators have contended that operators had ample warning that a strong storm was approaching.
The vessel's certificate of inspection issued by the Coast Guard in 2017 established rules and limitations on when it could be on the water. It states the boat "shall not be operated waterborne" when winds exceed 35 mph and/or wave heights exceed 2 feet.
Garrison said McKee put the boat into water that violated those limitations and was "more than this vessel could weather."
Video and audio from the boat, recovered by divers, showed that the lake was calm when the boat entered the water. But the weather suddenly turned violent and, within minutes, the boat sank.
The wind speed at the time of the accident was more than 70 mph, just short of hurricane force, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Weather forecasts had warned of an impending storm with winds possibly exceeding 60 mph.
The wave height wasn't known, but cellphone video shot by passengers on a nearby excursion boat showed waves that appeared to be far greater than 2 feet (0.61 meters) high.
In addition to the weather, the Coast Guard has said it was looking into regulatory compliance of the boat and crew member duties and qualifications.
Branson is among several places around the country where the amphibious vehicles offer excursions. Since 1999, 42 deaths have been associated with duck boat accidents.
On May 1, 1999, 13 people died when the Miss Majestic duck boat sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 2015, five college students died and more than 70 people were hurt when a duck boat veered into a charter bus on a bridge in Seattle. Two Hungarian tourists died in 2010 when a stalled duck boat was struck by a tugboat-guided barge on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.