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Captain of tour boat that sank on Missouri lake, killing 17, indicted on federal charges

Kansas City Star logoKansas City Star 11/8/2018 By Laura Bauer, Judy L. Thomas and Steve Vockrodt, The Kansas City Star
a group of people on a boat: The buck boat is hauled out of the water on Monday, July 23, 2018, at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo. © J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS The buck boat is hauled out of the water on Monday, July 23, 2018, at Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo.

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - A federal grand jury has charged the captain of a duck boat that sank on Table Rock Lake in July, killing 17 people, with misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty.

An indictment was unsealed on Thursday morning, about an hour before the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri was set to make an announcement related to the duck boat incident at its office in Springfield.

Kenneth Scott McKee, who captained the Stretch Duck 7 boat on July 19 for Ride the Ducks in Branson, is accused of a litany of violations of federal law overseeing boat captains, including:

- Not properly assessing incoming weather before taking the boat out on to water

- Operating the boat in conditions that violate the U.S. Coast Guard's certificate of inspection

- Not telling passengers to use flotation devices

- Not speeding up to head to the nearest shore as severe weather approached

- Failing to raise the side curtains of the boat as its bilge alarm sounded as it took on water.

"Our entire community was shocked and saddened by the loss of 17 lives in this tragic event last summer," said U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison for the Western District of Missouri. "Today's indictment alleges that the misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty by the ship's captain caused or contributed to the loss of those lives."

McKee's attorney, J.R. Hobbs, had not yet seen the indictment and could not immediately provide comment.

McKee had been identified as a target of the federal investigation in an earlier court filing by the U.S. attorney's office.

Thursday's indictment is the first criminal charge arising from the Table Rock Lake catastrophe.

The boat tour was initially set to begin on land, its usual course. Tickets said the tour would start at 6:30 p.m.

Before the first passengers boarded, an individual stepped onto the back of the boat at 6:28 p.m. and told the crew to conduct the water portion of the tour first, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph - near hurricane force - with waves topping 3 feet.

When the boat started its water tour at 6:55 p.m. on July 19 the lake appeared calm. Around that time, emergency crews in Taney County began responding to calls about toppled trees and downed power lines caused by the storm.

Just after 7 p.m., whitecaps were visible on the water and winds increased, according to an initial report released by the NTSB. Less than a minute later, the captain of the Ride the Ducks boat made a comment about the storm, the NTSB report said, without any further explanation.

In August, the Kansas City Star obtained a copy of a copy of Stretch Duck 07's Certificate of Inspection, which sets conditions under which the vessel can operate. Those include the number of passengers, weather and use of life preservers. The Branson boat's certificate set stringent guidelines for wind and water conditions.

According to the certificate of inspection, the company violated limitations put in place for severe weather.

"Vessel shall not be operated waterborne when winds exceed 35 mph, and/or the wave height exceeds two feet," said the certificate issued in February 2017.

Yet the duck boat owned by Ripley Entertainment entered Table Rock Lake 23 minutes after the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area. That alert included Table Rock Lake and warned of winds in excess of 60 mph.

Ripley Entertainment purchased Ride the Ducks Branson from Herschend Family Entertainment in December 2017. The tour boats have not been operating in Branson since the tragedy.

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

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