A survivor of the Missouri tour boat tragedy in which 17 people drowned, has opened up about what happened on board as investigators confirmed the vessel set off in near hurricane-speed winds.
Tia Coleman, who lost nine members of her family, spoke out as the National Transportation Safety Board said gusts were topping 73mph when the vessel left shore at Table Rock Lake in Branson. Official hurricane speeds are 75mph.
Speaking at a press conference, Earl Weener, an official with the NTSB, said waves may have been cresting at six feet as the amphibious duck boat went onto the water. “We want to understand how that information was passed on to people who made the decisions to go out at that time,” he said.
Spearately, Ms Coleman – whose husband and three children were among the fatalities – repeatedly broke down as she revealed harrowing details from onboard.
“When that water came over the boat I didn’t know what happened,” she said from her hospital bed at the Cox Medical Center in Branson. “I had my son next to me. But when the water filled up the boat … I couldn’t feel anybody, I couldn’t see. I just remember, ‘I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to get out’.”
She added her sister-in-law had shouted to “grab the baby” as the boat began to submerge but that it hit her head as she tried to find an escape in the darkness.
“As I was swimming up I was praying, ‘Lord, please let me get to my babies, I’ve got to get to my babies’,” she said.
Referring to a previous interview in which she said the captain had told people not to grab lifeboats, she said: “The biggest thing that stood out to me is, no matter what, I felt like if I was able to get a life jacket I could’ve saved my babies because they could’ve at least floated up to the top, and somebody could have grabbed them. And I wasn’t able to do that.”
When she reached the surface, she said people on a showboat nearby were jumping into the water to help.
“These beautiful people, angels — I don’t know who they were, they pulled me up,” said Ms Coleman, who was visiting from her home state of Indiana. “And when they pulled me up from the boat, I didn’t see any of my family. But I believe I survived by God and by good Samaritans.”
She added: “I don’t know if there’s a recovery from it…Going home, I already know, is going to be completely difficult. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Since I’ve had a home, it’s always been filled with little feet and laughter. And my husband.”
Coleman’s nephew was the only other member of the family on the trip that survived.
Among the other fatalities were the boat’s driver and a father and son visiting from Arkansas. Victims ranged in age from one to 70. Of 31 people on board – which included 29 paying passengers – only 14 survived.
As the investigation picked up pace over the weekend the NTSB said it had recovered the vessel’s black box and had filed requests for inspection records, certifications, maintenance records and incident histories from the boat’s owners, Ride The Duck.
The US Coast Guard, meanwhile, said it was working with the company on a plan to get the boat out of the water, where it currently sits 80ft under the surface.
“We expect and are putting together the resources to effect that salvage, we’re hopeful that will happen in the early part of next week,” said Scott Stoermer, commander of the Upper Mississippi River Sector.
The 17 who died were: Angela Coleman, 45; Belinda Coleman, 69; Ervin Coleman, 76; Glenn Coleman, 40; Horace Coleman, 70; and 1-year-old Arya Coleman; Maxwell Coleman, 2; Evan Coleman, 7; and Reece Coleman, 9; William Asher, 69; Rosemarie Hamann, 68; Janice Bright, 63; William Bright, 65; Leslie Dennison, 64; Bob Williams, 73; Steve Smith, 53; and Lance Smith, 15.