Branson, MO – An off-duty Stone County sheriff’s deputy was among the first to rush to save as many lives as possible when a duck boat carrying 31 people capsized and sank in the turbulent waters of Table Rock Lake on Thursday.
The unnamed deputy was working security for nearby for the popular Branson Belle showboat, which offers tours across the lake, when a violent storm hit, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The deputy and other Branson Belle employees and passengers jumped into action, rescuing as many people as possible during an effort the sheriff described as “outstanding,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
A severe thunderstorm warning for the lake was issued about 40 minutes before the duck boat sank, but a severe thunderstorm watch had been in effect for over seven hours.
Winds topped 63 miles per hour at the Branson Airport, and were even more severe over the lake's open water, National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Linderberg told FOX News.
“When we issue a warning, it means take action,” meteorologist Kelsey Angle told WTOP.
The crew’s rescue mission was already underway when police were first notified about the sinking “Ride the Ducks” boat at approximately 7 p.m., Sheriff Rader said.
One of the duck boats was able to make it to safety, but the second boat soon fell behind and the lake water eventually began pouring into the windows, the video showed.
The duck boat, which had the ability to travel both in water and on land, ultimately capsized and sank in 40 feet of water, WTOP reported.
When it reached the lakebed, the boat rolled on its wheels to a depth of approximately 80 feet, Sheriff Rader said.
The vessell had been carrying 29 passengers and 2 crew members on a pleasure cruise at the time of the tragedy.
Teams have recovered the bodies of all seventeen people – ages 1 to 70 – who lost their lives, CNN reported.
Of the 14 survivors, seven were hospitalized for various injuries, according to FOX News.
One survivor told FOX59, “The captain had told us, ‘Don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets, you won’t need them,’ ” Tia recalled of his alleged message, which she said came as they were already in the water. “So nobody grabbed them because we listened to the captain as he told us the safety [rules].”
Authorities have not publicly identified those who died.
The sheriff said that the boat’s captain survived, but that its driver was among the fatalities, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
The driver’s wife of over 30 years, Judy Williams, identified him as Robert “Bob” Williams, according to CNN.
Kourtney Parker, a passenger on the other duck boat that was able to reach the shore, captured harrowing footage of the violent storm as she watched the doomed boat through her window.
“[We] got about halfway across the lake, and then, bam, everything all happened so fast," Parker told CNN. "We were literally under water a couple times."
“We got toward the lake ramp, but our propeller quit working. So, we had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a backup bus, which set us back and that (other) boat, because we were in front of them, and they had to wait for us," she explained.
When her boat reached shore, Parker scrambled out onto the ramp and searched the water for the second duck boat.
“I turned around and watched the other boat nose-dive, and my heart dropped," she told CNN.
Suzanne Smagala, spokesperson for Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said that Thursday’s fatal incident was the only accident in the history of the business – a period that spanned over four decades, WTOP reported.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride The Ducks Branson. This incident has deeply affected all of us. Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking,” a statement on the company’s website read. “We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved.”
“The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority. Ride the Ducks will be closed for business while we support the investigation, and to allow time to grieve for the families and the community,” the statement continued. “Thank you for your support, and we ask that your thoughts and prayers be with the families during this time.”
University of Georgia professor and past president of the American Meteorological Society Marshall Shepherd disputed the narrative that the relentless storm emerged "out of nowhere," as some witnesses had described, according to a Forbes editorial.
"This is not 1901. We have satellites, advanced radars, good weather models, all short-term weather information showed that storms approaching well before the boat was on the water,” Marshall noted. “In fact, Doppler radar was tracking these storms as they approached Branson…It is pretty clear that strong storms were approaching the area.”
You can see footage of some of the rescue below: