Hot Springs Arkansas Duck Boat
Tour Accident

13 Dead
1 May 1999


12 dead in tourist boat accident at Hot Springs

Northwest Arkansas Times:
By Jamie Stengle - AP
2 May 1999
HOT SPRINGS - Eleven people died Saturday after an amphibious tourist boat took on water and passengers panicked while scrambling for life preservers, officials said.

The World War II-vintage boat sank in 51 feet of water on Lake Hamilton, south of Hot Springs, the city manager said. Residents of nearby condominiums saw the boat in trouble, ran to their own boats and rushed to rescue as many people as they could, a local emergency director said.

"You can't believe how fast that thing sank," said Gary Ledin, who was on the boat with his wife Diann. They did not lose any family members in the accident.

Hot Springs Police Cpl. Mike Buck said 20 people were aboard the boat, known as a duck because of its use on both land and water. The last body, that of a young girl, was pulled from the water about four hours after the mid-day accident.

The Coast Guard was investigating and authorities had no explanation at a news conference for why the boat took on water. The boat had not been recovered from the lake by late Saturday.

Strong wind made the water rough when the accident occurred on the lake lined by hotels and restaurants.

Tyron Golden, 30, said he was on the back porch of his condominium when he heard a call for help. When he looked, he saw life jackets in the water and boaters converged trying to help survivors. The duck boat was already gone.

Golden said helped divers move bodies onto a dock.

"While I was down there they brought in five people dead and one was a small child," he said.

The duck boat's owner issued a prepared statement.

"We have always tried to make our operation as safe as possible and go to great lengths to maintain our ducks and equipment to the highest standards and to properly train our drivers," said Don Bridges, whose company owns the boat that sank. "Unfortunately, sometimes, even when you do your best, accidents will happen."

Joe Sexson, the director of emergency services for the Hot Springs National Park, had put the death toll at 12, but Garland County Sheriff Larry Selig said at an afternoon news conference that 11 were dead and that another person was on life support at a local hospital.

"I think we may have miscounted," Buck said.

The other eight people aboard the boat were accounted for, including the operator, a young woman, officials said. They were offered post-trauma counseling at St. Joseph's Regional Health Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Ledin said the boat began taking on water from the rear and sank in about 30 seconds and Mayor Bob Mathis said a canopy covering the open boat may have trapped the victims as the vessel sank. City Manager Kent Myers said water flowed into the boat suddenly, causing its passengers to panic during a scramble for life vests.

Selig said no other craft was involved.

Bridges' ducks continued land operations after the accident but did not go into the water.

Myers said that the boat was required to have life preservers aboard but that passengers did not have to wear them. No one aboard was wearing them, Sexson said. Those who survived likely did so because of help from residents of nearby condominiums, he said.

"When people in the nearby condos saw what was happening, they rushed to their boats and went out to help," Sexson said. The accident site was between one-quarter or one-third of a mile offshore, witnesses said.

The dead included people of all ages, including three children ages 2-5, Selig said.

The sheriff said a list of the victims would probably not be available until Sunday. Coast Guard investigators from Memphis, Tenn., were dispatched to the scene and would be in charge of retrieving the sunken vessel, Selig said.

Hot Springs is a tourist community about an hour southwest of Little Rock and is popular with boaters, sailors and sightseers. After the Oaklawn Park thoroughbred racing season ends each April, visitors flock to several of nearby lakes or to Bathhouse Row, the anchor of the Hot Springs National Park downtown.

The ducks, whose tickets cost $9, often ferry visitors among the city's tourist attractions.

Coast Guard Lt. Bruce Fisher, chief of port operations at Memphis, said the duck that sank was owned by White & Yellow Duck Sightseeing Tours and operated by its subsidiary, Land and Lake Tours Inc. The vehicles are generally World War II surplus property initially built for the Army to carry troops directly from land into the water, Fisher said.

They have three axles, six wheels and generally hold 25-26 people, including the operator, who rides in the front.

"It's basically a boat hull on wheels," Fisher said.

The boats are inspected by the Coast Guard annually, generally in the late fall or winter, when the tourist season is quiet.

The Coast Guard dispatched two investigators to the lake, Fisher said.

Arkansas tour boat sinks 'in about 30 seconds'; 11 die

CNN
May 1, 1999
LAKE HAMILTON, Arkansas (CNN) -- An amphibious tourist boat sank Saturday after taking on water, killing 11 people as passengers frantically searched for life preservers, authorities said.

The World War II-era craft -- called a "duck" because of its use on land and water -- picked up passengers in Hot Springs and had just begun a scenic tour of Lake Hamilton.

"The (boat) operator told us that all of a sudden the front started coming up, almost vertical. It started taking on water and submerged in about 30 seconds," said Garland County Sheriff Larry Selig.

Eleven of the 20 people on board drowned, including three small children. A cloth canopy may have trapped the victims as the boat sank in 50-foot deep waters, said Hot Springs Mayor Bob Mathis.

Rush for life jackets: Witnesses said they saw the craft take on water at the rear and passengers panicking as they rushed to get life preservers.

The boat was required to carry life preservers, but passengers did not have to wear them, said City Manager Kent Myers.

"You can't believe how fast that thing sank," said Gary Ledin, who survived the ordeal.

Residents along the lake shore rushed to their boats to help rescue some of the survivors. Eight passengers and the boat's operator were eventually plucked from the water.

Only one survivor, a woman, was hospitalized and remained in critical condition at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center.

Local authorities had no explanation for the sinking. They were looking into several reports that a plug at the back of the boat may have been left off or that the vessel was hit by a jet ski.

A list of victims was not expected until Sunday.

Coast Guard, NTSB to investigate

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board were en route to investigate, the sheriff said.

The amphibious "ducks" have been offering tours on Lake Hamilton for 40 years. They undergo annual inspections by the Coast Guard.

The vehicles are generally World War II surplus built for the Army to carry troops directly from land into the water, said Coast Guard Lt. Bruce Fisher, chief of port operations at Memphis, Tenn.

"It's basically a boat hull on wheels," he said.

Fisher said the duck that sank was owned by White & Yellow Duck Sightseeing Tours and operated by its subsidiary, Land and Lake Tours Inc.

Don Bridges, who owns White & Yellow, said his boats are well maintained.

"We have always tried to make our operation as safe as possible and go to great lengths to maintain our ducks and equipment to the highest standards and to properly train our drivers," he said.

"Unfortunately, sometimes, even when you do your best, accidents will happen."

Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Death Toll Rises

MSNBC
2 May 1999
The death toll from the sinking of a tourist excursion boat rose to 13 Sunday when a woman died in a hospital and divers returned to a lake and found her husband. Their daughter also was among the victims.

THE AMPHIBIOUS vehicle of World War II vintage called a duck&; because it travels both on land and water; sank rapidly shortly after entering Lake Hamilton on Saturday while passengers panicked as they scrambled for life preservers.
I understand one man tried to pass out life jackets, but there was no time, Garland County Sheriff Larry Selig said Sunday.
The passengers had to get out through a gap between the sides of the boat's hull and a canvas canopy, and their efforts to put on life jackets which they were not required by law to be wearing; may have contributed;When trying to get out of a small hole, a life jacket ... may have made it worse, Selig said.
The victims included five children, Selig said, a 13-year-old, one 14-year-old, and three children under the age of 5.

Victim identities were not released, but Selig said they came from Tennessee, Louisiana, California and Arkansas.
Divers had been sent home Saturday evening, their work apparently complete, but then authorities learned that one passenger was still unaccounted for when a 16-year-old boy viewed the victims bodies and said he didn't see his father, Selig said.
The man's body was found Sunday morning about two hours after his wife died at St. Joseph's Regional Health Center, Selig said. Their daughter, age unknown, was among the victims, he said.
SUDDEN SINKING The duck, the Miss Majestic, sank shortly before noon Saturday in 51 feet of water, about 300 feet from the shore of Lake Hamilton on the city's south side. Twenty-one people were on board, including the driver.
The passengers had been picked up by the vehicle in downtown Hot Springs and driven about five miles through the city to the lake.
They put it in at dock, proceeded into the water, saw they were taking on water, and (the operator) turned the boat,” in an attempt to return to shore, said Robert Bowen, chief of merchant vessel safety in the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Memphis, Tenn.
Authorities had no idea yet why the boat took on water, Bowen said. However, witnesses said strong wind had kicked up waves on the lake, lined by hotels, restaurants and homes.

The sheriff said Navy experts were on their way to Hot Springs to help raise the boat.
The amphibious vehicles have rolled and floated through Hot Springs for 40 years. Tickets cost $9.

The ducks have three axles, six wheels and a propeller, and carry about 25 people, including the operator. They are inspected annually by the Coast Guard.
The duck that sank was owned by White & Yellow Duck Sightseeing Tours and operated by its subsidiary, Land and Lake Tours Inc.
Don Bridges, who owns White & Yellow, said his boats are well maintained. “Unfortunately, sometimes, even when you do your best, accidents will happen, he said.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press

'Duck' vehicle was developed for military in WWII

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
2 May 1999
In the late 1930s, the U.S. government was approached about developing an amphibious vehicle.
    At the time, the nation was not at war and the government expressed little interest in such a vehicle.
    Previous efforts to develop such a vehicle were mainly unsuccessful. The effort to convert an Army Jeep into a floating vehicle was a dismal failure, one historian saying the resulting contraption had the "amphibious qualities of a safe."
    But the war in Europe was looming and eventually the idea of a vehicle that could transport troops on land and in water became attractive. The Defense Department decided to appropriate funds to design and develop an amphibious vehicle for military use.
    What resulted in 1942 was the DUKW, dubbed the "duck," a vehicle capable of carrying 25 soldiers on land, 50 in the water and more than 5,000 pounds of cargo. It was created from the military's 21/2-ton truck mainly by adding air tanks and a pair of small propellers to provide forward motion.
    The DUKW was built in Pontiac, Mich., by General Motors Corp. In a three-year period, the company manufactured 21,247 DUKWs at a cost to the government of about $340,000.
    Each DUKW was 31 feet long, 8 feet wide, weighed 71/2 tons empty and was made of quarter-inch steel. Each vehicle had a six-cylinder engine, a five-speed transmission and a two-speed transfer case, allowing 10 forward speeds and two in reverse. All six wheels were driven.
    The top speed of a DUKW was 50 to 55 mph on land and 6 mph on water. It had an on-board tire inflation system powered by a two-cylinder air compressor and air storage tank, by which the driver could inflate or deflate any or all tires from controls on the dashboard.
    The vehicle was an instant success. DUKWs were classified in 1942 as standard military equipment and participated in many of the major battles of World War II. In one of the war's most famous battles, more than 2,000 DUKWs carried troops and supplies to shore in Normandy, France, during the D-Day invasion.
    The vehicles were responsible for carrying 3 million tons of equipment and supplies to French and Belgian ports between June 6, 1944, and May 8, 1945. DUKWs were very useful in moving troops and their supplies from ships to shore.
    After the war the vehicles saw many uses. The U.S. Coast Guard used them for rescuing flood victims, and they often are used today as excursion vehicles on lakes and rivers in many communities in the country. Most have had extensive conversions before transporting passengers.

Information in this article was contributed by The Sentinel-Record

Officials uncertain about rules for 'duck' craft

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
2 May 1999
Officials were researching Saturday just which regulations apply to "duck" boats like the one that sank in Lake Hamilton, killing 11 people.
    The U.S. Coast Guard has jurisdiction over all watercraft that carry paying passengers, but its rules don't mention duck boats specifically. Coast Guard rules require commercial watercraft to carry life preservers, but don't mandate that passengers wear them.
    Arkansas law requires children under 13 to wear the devices while aboard a boat, but exceptions are made "when they are within the enclosed area of a houseboat, cruiser or within the railings of a party barge while the boat is under way," according to the state Game and Fish Commission's site on the World Wide Web.
    Former state Sen. Jim Keet, R-Little Rock, was boating on Lake Hamilton when the fatal accident occurred Saturday. In 1995 Keet co-sponsored a bill that added several water safety rules to state law, among them the requirement that young children wear life preservers on most boats.
    Even though different rules govern duck boats, he said, common sense should dictate that children wear life preservers whenever they are on the water.
    "Let me put it this way," Keet said. "If I was on a small vessel like that with my child, who is 11, she knows she would be wearing one, and she swims like a fish."

Coast Guard authority to inspect 'duck' boats challenged in 1980s

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
2 May 1999
The amphibious vehicle, or "duck," that sank Saturday afternoon in an accident that killed 11 people on Lake Hamilton south of Hot Springs was owned by White and Yellow Duck Sightseeing Tours, which is operated by Land and Lake Tours Inc.
    Land and Lake Tours, owned by Don Bridges, has operated sightseeing tours in the Hot Springs area since 1962.
    The ducks are World War II vintage craft, created in the 1940s when the U.S. Army needed a way to transport troops and supplies over water and onto land.
    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and General Motors Corp. came up with a solution: a six-wheel GMC truck with watertight hull enclosure. GMC assigned the craft the model designation "DUKW" -- "ducks" for short.
    The amphibious craft were used in numerous beach invasions to resupply ground troops with food and ammunition.
    Today the vehicles are popular for sightseeing excursions not only in Hot Springs but also in Chicago, Boston, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Wisconsin Dells, Wis.; and Plymouth, Mass.
    In Arkansas the state regulated the business until 1976, when the U.S. Coast Guard took over inspections of the amphibious boats.
    In 1982, Land and Lake Tours challenged the Coast Guard's jurisdiction. The company said it had operated for years under state supervision and regulation without incident.
    The company also said it could not continue to operate if it had to comply with more rigorous federal regulations.
    U.S. District Judge Oren Harris, agreeing with the company, said that the Coast Guard lacked jurisdiction because Lake Hamilton, where the ducks run, was not a navigable body.
    A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis disagreed with Harris.
    The panel cited a Commerce Clause definition of "navigable waters." That clause says that if a waterway was navigable in its original state, it can be regulated under the Commerce Clause.
    Lake Hamilton was created by damming the Ouachita River, so it falls under that clause, the panel said.
    "Here, the federal government has an intense interest in the safety of passenger vessels, and the safety of passenger vessels has a substantial effect on interstate commerce," the panel wrote.
    "Undoubtedly, Congress may require the inspection of passenger vessels, impose safety requirements and exercise its authority for such other reason as may seem to it in the interest of furthering navigation or commerce."
    The company appealed the ruling, but in 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments by Land and Lake Tours.
    It was determined earlier that the boats engage in interstate commerce in that they carry passengers from other states even though they operate only on Lake Hamilton and roadways leading to the lake.
    In 1997, Land and Lake Tours temporarily halted its operations in downtown Hot Springs when the Central Business Improvement District Commission determined Bridges had violated district rules by selling duck ride tickets from a private parking lot downtown.
    Most tickets for duck trips are sold downtown, officials have said.
    According to the company's World Wide Web site, a typical 90-minute White and Yellow tour begins at 406 Central Ave. (Arkansas 7) across from the Fordyce Bath House, then heads south on Arkansas 7 for about five miles to Lake Hamilton. Then the duck cruises along the north channel by passing between St. Johns Island and Long Island.
    Two companies operate duck tours in Hot Springs: Land and Lake Tours and National Park Duck Tours.

Boat was inspected hours before it sank

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
2 May 1999
by Andrew A. Green
HOT SPRINGS -- The boat that sank Saturday in Lake Hamilton, taking 11 people to their deaths, was inspected only hours earlier, said the attorney for the boat's owner.
   Q. Byrum Hurst Jr., attorney for Land and Lake Tours Inc., the parent company of White and Yellow Duck Tours, said the company performs daily maintenance checks on its boats. One was done Saturday morning on the amphibious "duck" boat that sank, he said.
    The company has operated in Hot Springs for nearly 40 years and has never had a boat sink or a fatal accident, Hurst said.
    "This comes as quite a shock to everyone involved," he said.
    After the accident, company officials discussed whether they should require passengers to wear life preservers at all times whether the Coast Guard requires it or not, Hurst said.
    Since most of the details of the accident aren't known, it's impossible to say how much life jackets might have helped, but company officials will consult with safety experts to determine whether they should require passengers to wear the jackets, Hurst said.
    City Manager Kent Myers said he met with Mayor Bob Mathis after the accident and discussed whether the city should take action to impose such a requirement.
    Officials said they will try to raise the boat today to determine details of the accident.
    The company shut down the day's tours almost immediately after the accident and will remain closed at least for today, both out of respect for the victims and to make sure that a similar accident doesn't occur, Hurst said.
    "Even if this is a freak accident, once in every 40 years, we don't want it to ever happen again," he said. "Before the ducks go back in the water, we will become assured this will never happen again."
    Myers said the city was in "a state of shock" over the drownings.
    "We're just devastated," he said. "Mainly at this point, our thoughts are out to the families of the victims."
    Hot Springs residents said they were shocked at the accident and angry that the victims hadn't been required to wear life preservers.
    "I hope it brings them to use precautions," said Fletcher Davis of Hot Springs, who said he once rode one of the boats and joked about not wearing the vests.
    "We thought it was safe," his wife, Ransha, said.

Tour company in court in '80s over craft

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
2 May 1999
The amphibious vehicle or "duck" that sank Saturday afternoon and killed 11 people on Lake Hamilton south of Hot Springs was owned by White and Yellow Duck Sightseeing Tours, which is operated by Land and Lake Tours Inc.
    Land and Lake Tours has operated sightseeing tours in the Hot Springs area since 1962. The company is owned by Don Bridges.
    The ducks are World War II vintage craft, created in the 1940s when the U.S. Army needed a way to transport troops and supplies over water and onto land.
    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and General Motors Corp. came up with a solution: a six-wheel GMC truck with watertight hull enclosure. GMC assigned the craft the model number "DUKW" -- "ducks" for short.
    The amphibious craft were used in numerous beach invasions to resupply ground troops with food and ammunition.
    Today the vehicles are a popular mode of transportation for sightseeing excursions not only in Hot Springs but also in Chicago, Boston, Chattanooga, Tenn.; Wisconsin Dells, Wis.; and Plymouth, Mass.
    In Arkansas the state regulated the business until 1976, when the U.S. Coast Guard took over inspections of the amphibious boats.
    In 1982, Land and Lake Tours challenged the Coast Guard's jurisdiction. The company said it had operated for years under state supervision and regulation without incident.
    The company also said it could not continue to operate if it had to comply with more rigorous federal regulations.
    U.S. District Judge Oren Harris, agreeing with the company, said that the Coast Guard lacked jurisdiction because Lake Hamilton, where the ducks run, was not a navigable body.
    A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis disagreed with Harris.
    The panel cited a Commerce Clause definition of "navigable waters." That clause says that if a waterway was navigable in its original state, it can be regulated under the Commerce Clause.
    Lake Hamilton was created by damming the Ouachita River, so it falls under that clause, the panel said.
    "Here, the federal government has an intense interest in the safety of passenger vessels, and the safety of passenger vessels has a substantial effect on interstate commerce," the panel wrote.
    "Undoubtedly, Congress may require the inspection of passenger vessels, impose safety requirements and exercise its authority for such other reason as may seem to it in the interest of furthering navigation or commerce."
    The company appealed the ruling, but in 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments by Land and Lake Tours.
    It was determined earlier that the boats engage interstate commerce in that they carry passengers from other states even though they operate only on Lake Hamilton and roadways leading to the lake.
    In 1997, Land and Lake Tours temporarily halted its operations in downtown Hot Springs when the Central Busines Improvement District Commission deermined Bridges had violated district rules by selling duck ride tickets from a private parking lot downtown.
    Most tickets for duck trips are sold downtown, officials have said.
    According to the company's World Wide Web site, a typical 90-minute White and Yellow tour begins at 06 Central Ave. (Arkansas 7) across from the Fordyce Bath House, then heads south on Arkansas 7 for about five miles to Lake Hamilton. Then the duck cruises along the north channel by passing between St. Johns Island and Long Island.
    Three companies operate duck tours in Hot Springs: Land and Lake Tours, National Park Duck Tours and Duck Amphibious Sightseeing Tours.

Boat that sank, killing 13, had faulty seal days earlier

CNN
May  3, 1999
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) -- Investigators are focusing on whether a faulty drive-shaft seal and a large canopy combined to help drag 13 people to their deaths aboard a fast-sinking tourist excursion boat.

The World War II-vintage vessel had been in the repair shop just two days before it sank in Lake Hamilton on Saturday, drowning 13 of its 21 passengers, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.

NTSB member John A. Hammerschmidt said investigators want to know whether company mechanics actually made any repairs, and what was done.

That determination would have to wait until the boat can be raised from 51 feet of cloudy water. First, the Coast Guard wants to approve the salvage plan to make sure no evidence is damaged, said Robert Bowen of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office at Memphis, Tenn.

Officials said the amphibious boat -- called a "duck" because it can travel on both land and water -- sank in a matter of seconds as passengers scrambled for life preservers, which were not required to be worn on the vessel.

Robert Powers said that when he first noticed water pooling in the stern of the boat, he stood up and started throwing life vests at other passengers. He last saw his wife, Danna, 32, as she struggled to fit a life vest over the head of their 8-year-old daughter, Madeline, he said. The girl survived; his wife died.

"I tossed them the jacket and said 'Get out of here now,"' said Powers, 34, of Little Rock. "It was that quick. We were under water."

Some victims -- especially those near the center of the vessel _ may have been prevented from swimming free by an overhead canopy.

"The canopy of the vessel appears to be a significant factor in escaping the vessel," said Hammerschmidt, whose team of investigators interviewed survivors Sunday.

Most of the victims were found still inside the sunken boat, said Garland County Sheriff Larry Selig.

Among those questioned Sunday was driver Elizabeth Helmbrecht, 56, who had taken the boat in for repairs Thursday after a bilge pump turned on automatically during a cruise, Hammerschmidt said. The driver said there was a hole in a rubber seal around a drive shaft -- allowing water into the boat, he said.

Saturday was the first time the boat had been out since, and the driver was about seven minutes from shore when she realized the boat was taking on water, according to Hammerschmidt.

She told investigators she tried to turn on the bilge pump, grab a radio, and turn back to shore, but the boat sank less than a minute after she became aware of the problem, Hammerschmidt said.

Other survivors said the boat seemed to sink even quicker than that.

"The driver thought the boat was listing to port, so several people attempted to move starboard," passenger James McGuirk told the sheriff's office. "By that time, it was obvious the boat was sinking.

"From the time the driver asked people to move until the boat was under, it was 15 seconds tops," McGuirk said. His wife, Melanie, 22, died in the accident.

The vessel, the Miss Majestic, is one of several amphibious vehicles that have rolled and floated through Hot Springs for 40 years without any previous fatalities.

The Coast Guard asked local companies that operate the vehicles to suspend operations until the sunken boat can be inspected. Chief Petty Officer Buddy Dye said there have been discussions in his agency about shutting down operations of duck boats nationwide until officials can find out what happened at Lake Hamilton.

Sunday morning, two women tied a bouquet of a dozen yellow and purple irises to the guard rail of a bridge near the accident site. Others had left two floating candles and a cross on the water.

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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