NTSB tells US Coast Guard to act on “Duck” vehicles reserve buoyancy

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued a Marine Safety Recommendation Report calling upon the US Coast Guard to require sufficient reserve buoyancy for DUKW amphibious passenger vessels, and to require the removal of canopies, side curtains and their associated framing, while underway, for those without sufficient reserve buoyancy.

The recommendation came as the NTSB released a preliminary report as part of its continuing investigation into the accident on July 19th 2018 involving a modified WWII DUKW amphibious passenger vessel. There were 17 deaths as a result of the incident.

The NTSB has said that the USCG should DUKW amphibious passenger vessels (Stretch Ducks) to have sufficient reserve buoyancy through passive means to remain upright and afloat with a full complement of passengers and crewmembers in the event of damage or flooding.

For Stretch Ducks without sufficient reserve buoyancy, the USCG should require the removal of canopies, side curtains, and their associated framing during waterborne operations, thereby improving emergency egress in the event of sinking.

On the evening of July 19th 2018, 17of the 31 people aboard the Stretch Duck 7 died when she sank during a high-wind storm that developed rapidly on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.

The Stretch Duck 7 was built in 1944 as a DUKW landing craft to carry military personnel and cargo during World War II. It was subsequently modified for commercial purposes to carry passengers on excursion tours.

Because a criminal investigation by other federal and state agencies into the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 began shortly after the accident, sharing of factual information between the many involved parties has been limited. The NTSB said that several key witnesses had declined requests to be interviewed by investigators from the NTSB’s Office of Marine Safety, and the USCGs Marine Board of Investigation hearings had not yet been scheduled.

Consequently, the NTSB noted that it had not yet completed its investigation, but was releasing an interim safety recommendation report to address the insufficient reserve buoyancy of DUKW amphibious passenger vessels, along with their impediments to passenger emergency egress.

The NTSB observed that these safety issues were identified almost 20 years prior to the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7 after the 1999 sinking of the Miss Majestic, another accident involving a DUKW amphibious passenger vessel that resulted in multiple fatalities.

In its 2000 report the NTSB warned that amphibious vessels were vulnerable to rapid sinking because they lacked reserve buoyancy, and predicted that the potential existed for another life-threatening accident similar to the sinking of the Miss Majestic, unless the vulnerability to flooding and sinking was addressed.

In the 2018 incident the Stretch Duck 7 lacked adequate reserve buoyancy and as a result sank rapidly once severe weather caused water to enter the vessel.

Both the fixed canopy and a closed side curtain spanning the starboard side of the passenger compartment on the Stretch Duck 7 impeded passenger escape. This probably increased the number of fatalities.

The NTSB had issued 22 safety recommendations related to modified WWII DUKW vessels since 1999, but, of those 22, only nine were implemented. Four were pending and classified “open – acceptable response” and the remaining nine had not been implemented and were classified “open – unacceptable response”, or “closed – unacceptable action” or “closed – unacceptable action/no response received”.

The NTSB safety recommendation which addressed the need for DUKWs to have adequate reserve buoyancy but was classified “closed – unacceptable action/no response received”, a full eight years after its issuance.

The NTSB said that it believed that the failure to implement previous safety recommendations related to reserve buoyancy for DUKWs contributed to the sinking of the Stretch Duck 7, and that the failure to implement the previously issued recommendation concerning fixed canopies, following the fatal, 1999 Miss Majestic DUKW accident, probably increased the number of fatalities resulting from Stretch Duck 7 sinking.

The NTSB will issue a determination of probable cause for this accident when the investigation concludes.

Duck boat disaster lawyer Robert J. Mongeluzzi said that “while we commend the NTSB for its comprehensive post-accident investigation and life-saving recommendations, we demand that the Coast Guard finally makes passenger safety its highest priority and immediately do what it should have done 17 years ago, in 2002, when the NTSB made the same duck-boat safety recommendations following the May 1st 1999 Miss Majestic duck boat sinking near Hot Springs, Arkansas in which 13 passengers, including five children drowned”.

Mongeluzzi continued: “Seventeen years ago the NTSB recommended that duck boats be modified so they remain afloat while flooded or that they remove their death trap canopies. The Coast Guard and the duck boat industry ignored these vital safety recommendations and another 19 innocent victims died because of their failure to act. How many more must die before they will?”