July 20, 2018 / 6:55 PM / a year ago

'Duck boat' design flaw flagged years ago

July 20 (Reuters) - The deaths of 17 people who drowned when a “duck boat” they were riding in sank in a Missouri lake have brought back to mind design faults in the amphibious tourist vessel that were flagged almost two decades ago by U.S. safety officials.

Authorities were still investigating how the boat capsized and the deaths occurred - in Table Rock Lake near the city of Branson during a sudden storm - but a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said duck boats’ canopy roof contributed to a high loss of a life in a similar disaster in 1999 in Arkansas.

“Canopies present major safety risks that need to be addressed ... both adults and children wearing lifejackets are at risk of being drowned if entrapped by the overhead canopy,” the NTSB said of the sinking in Arkansas, which killed 13 on Lake Hamilton.

The canopy design was, however, never addressed by the U.S. Coast Guard, which is typically responsible for regulating marine vessels, and authorities say sightseeing duck boats have been involved in fatal accidents ever since.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the NTSB report but confirmed it is responsible for regulating boats.

The maker of the Missouri duck boat, Ride the Duck International, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the questions being examined by investigators was whether passengers were wearing life jackets.

A Philadelphia lawyer who has advocated for victims of other duck boat disasters, said duck boats’ canopy roof turned the vessels into a “death trap” even for anyone wearing a life preserver.

“You drown if you do, you drown if you don’t,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, who is calling for federal and state transportation officials to immediately halt all duck boat operations.

The concern over the vessels’ design was echoed by Gerald Dworkin, a longtime aquatics safety and rescue expert.

“Even if they were wearing a life jacket when the boat went down, unless they could evacuate through the side windows they would’ve been trapped by that canopy,” said Dworkin, a consultant for Lifesaving Resources, an aquatics safety training firm in Maine.

The Thursday night accident, was one of the deadliest U.S. tourist incidents in recent years.

In 2010, a tugboat-guided barge hit a Ride The Ducks boat on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, killing two Hungarian students. Mongeluzzi’s firm won a $17 million settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims’ families.

A rash of duck boat tragedies marked 2015 and 2016.

A woman walking in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood was killed by a duck boat in May 2015. In September, a duck boat crashed into a charter bus carrying students in Seattle, killing five and injuring dozens.

In April 2016, a woman riding a scooter was killed by a duck boat in Boston.

On land, the amphibious vehicles have “massive blind spots” that endanger pedestrians, Mongeluzzi said. “(Another) problem is they have a bow so when you crash into another vehicle, it’s like equipping your vehicle with a killing spear in the front that will smash through and decapitate or slaughter the people inside.”

Mongeluzzi said there have been as many as 40 deaths involving duck boats since 1999.

“They are lethal on the land and they are lethal on the water,” he said. “Their death rate per mile exceeds any other modern boat, truck, car, train or plane.”

Reporting by Tea Kvetenadze and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Orlofsky

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