NTSB: Coast Guard failed to adopt key safety rules for duck boats
Current and former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials say that implementing past safety recommendations for duck boats could have prevented the Stretch Duck 7 tragedy in 2018 that claimed the lives of 17 people.
In November, the NTSB issued Marine Safety Recommendation Report 19/01 requesting that the Coast Guard require “sufficient reserve buoyancy for DUKW amphibious passenger vessels,” as well as the removal of canopies and framing while the vessels are underway. According to the report, the NTSB made the same recommendations after the duck boat Miss Majestic sank in Arkansas in 1999, killing 13 people.
Stretch Duck 7, a modified World War II amphibious vehicle, was carrying 31 people when it sank in Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., on July 19, 2018, during a rapidly developing high-wind storm. The captain of the vessel and two other employees of tour operator Ripley Entertainment have been indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple counts of negligence and misconduct.
“Lives could have been saved, and the Stretch Duck 7 accident could have been prevented had previously issued safety recommendations been implemented,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said in the November report.
Jim Hall, who served as the agency’s chairman from 1994 to 2001, also cited the Coast Guard’s failure to follow through on NTSB recommendations after the Miss Majestic incident.
“To me, the loss of lives (in Missouri) is almost a criminal act because we have invested so much of the taxpayers’ time and money to outline pretty clearly what was necessary for boats to be operated successfully,” he said.
The Coast Guard has implemented nine of 22 NTSB recommendations pertaining to duck boats since 1999, but it did not take action on previous recommendations about reserve buoyancy and side canopies, according to the NTSB’s November safety report.
Increasing reserve buoyancy would ensure that a vessel remains on the surface during a flooding event, allowing more time for those on board to evacuate. Reserve buoyancy can be increased through compartmentalization and adding flotation material to the vessel.
“For those vessels without reserve buoyancy, removal of the canopies, side curtains and supporting structure will improve the passengers’ and crew’s ability to escape, should it be necessary to evacuate the vessel,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway told Professional Mariner.
The Coast Guard’s Marine Board of Investigation is still reviewing the Stretch Duck 7 sinking to determine the cause and contributing factors. The NTSB had not completed a full inquiry into the incident as of early January.
Two weeks after Stretch Duck 7 sank, the Coast Guard issued Marine Safety Information Bulletin 06-18 to raise awareness about the operational limitations of amphibious passenger vessels and inform operators of their obligations. The Coast Guard issued guidance in 2000 urging its inspectors and vessel owners to evaluate canopy design and installation, according to the service.
While there are no pending regulations pertaining to amphibious vessels, “the Coast Guard is undertaking a new review of amphibious vessel canopies and reserve stability based on the NTSB’s re-issuance of the related recommendations, and we are focusing on these issues as part of our Marine Board of Investigation,” Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Amy Midgett said in an email. “The Coast Guard will closely consider any forthcoming recommendations to improve survivability on amphibious duck vessels.”
The Coast Guard Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis (CG-INV) oversees the consideration of NTSB recommendations by relevant Coast Guard program offices. Within a typical time frame of 30 days, CG-INV then drafts a formal response for internal review.
“The signed letter is then transmitted to the NTSB, and the recommendations are added to the Coast Guard’s internal tracking system, where the status of any implementing actions … (is) tracked and periodically reported to the NTSB until complete,” Midgett said.
The NTSB considers its recommendations on buoyancy and canopies critical to improving safety for duck boat passengers and crew. While incidents are relatively rare, the potential consequences “make it critical that the recommendations (in report 19/01) be acted on positively and in a timely manner by the Coast Guard,” Holloway said.