Response to Ride the Ducks Tragedy Falls Short

Thom Weidlich 07.26.18


Last week saw a terrible tragedy in which 17 people were killed after an amphibious “Ride the Ducks” vehicle capsized in Missouri. The operator claims to be hampered in its communications by the ongoing investigation, but it seems it could have done more. A CNN interview particularly did not impress.

The accident occurred on Table Rock Lake in Branson on Thursday, July 19, just after 7 p.m. local time and just after a storm kicked up. Thirty-one people were aboard the land-and-water vehicle. The fatalities included nine members of one family.

The operator’s parent company, Ripley Entertainment Inc., based in Orlando, Florida, issued a statement that seemed to emphasize the accident’s effect on itrather than on the victims and their families. It did, however, say that its Ride the Ducks Branson unit would cease operating during the government probe. At least that showed some action, or inaction.

More activity was to come. Ride the Ducks Branson itself posted a message on its Facebook page on Monday, July 23, announcing it would pay for funeral expenses and medical bills and help with travel or accommodations for family members. It was providing grief counseling to its employees, it said. All of that is smart and right. The company said it was cooperating with the investigation, and therefore couldn’t comment further.

Ride the Ducks Branson also posted its message to its website. In a smart move, it took down all other website content.

The statement from Ripley Entertainment invoked the accident cliché of “The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority.” That remains to be seen.

Severe Thunderstorm

Investigators apparently have a number of things to look into on that front. Passengers reportedly were told they didn’t need to wear life jackets (which, under the law, they don’t), the vehicle diverged from its usual path, and a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued a half-hour before the vessel capsized. Should that warning have been heeded?

The on-air interview Ripley Entertainment President Jim Pattison Jr. did with CNN’s John Berman was a lost opportunity to express empathy. Asked for his message to the victim’s families, Pattison said: “People are supposed to be able to go out for an outing and have a good time and it should never end this way. There’s not much more you can say.”

Pattison also said: “This company has been in business for 47 years and never had an incident. We’re absolutely devastated and we feel terrible.”

Given the duck-boat industry’s history with accidents, this should have been a planned-for crisis. One vehicle sank on Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton in 1999, killing 13 people. There was a deadly crash in 2010 on the Delaware River, where a duck boat collided with a barge (Ride the Ducks Philadelphia ceased operations in 2016). Other vehicles have crashed on the road.

Comment Opportunity

A few amphibious-vehicle companies took the opportunity to comment on the Missouri tragedy.

Ride the Ducks of Seattle put out a statement the day after the accident to make clear it was unaffiliated with Ride the Ducks Branson. “At Ride the Ducks Seattle, we follow a strict protocol that determines whether our Coast Guard-inspected Ducks can go on the water,” it wrote.

The operator of a Ride the Ducks in Wisconsin insisted he would not be changing his safety protocols in light of the Missouri incident.

Maybe that’s the wrong message to take from this tragedy.

Photo Credit: Ride the Ducks Branson (via Facebook)

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