Newly-revealed records show that a powerful water pump was removed from a duck boat that sank near Branson, MO in July.
The Higgins bilge pump, reports the Kansas City Star, was once considered a remedy to long-time concerns over the safety of duck boats. Able to pump out some 250 gallons of water per minute, the Higgins could have helped avert a tragedy.
But the duck boat that went down on Table Rock Lake in July didn’t have the Higgins, though it had in the past. Seventeen people died when the vessel capsized.
Now, investigators wonder whether the bilge pump’s absence may have played an integral role in the boat’s sinking. The Kansas City Star says it’s not yet clear why the pump was taken from Stretch Duck 07 and given a weaker replacement.
“No way would I have signed off on removing those bilge pumps. No way in hell,” Timothy Jones, a mechanic who spent years fixing similar duck boats, told the Star. “That pump right there is one of the main safety features, because if it does take on water, that pump can empty out the bottom of a duck in less than a minute. It’s quick.”
Court records obtained by the Kansas City Star purportedly show that ‘the Higgins pump in Stretch Duck 07 had been replaced with electric bilge pumps.’ And a related lawsuit filed by Missouri Attorney Josh Hawley claims the duck boat operator “did not conform” to federal safety standards when it failed to replace the powerful pump with one “of equivalent or greater capacity.”
The Star says that ‘dozens of duck boat inspections’ overseen by the Coast Guard found Stretch Duck 07 was far from the only unit with a weak bilge pump. An unknown number of Higgins pumps on area duck boats were taken out and replaced with electric 20-gallon-per-minute pumps.
The Coast Guard itself seemed skeptical about the commercial use of duck boats—vehicles which were meant as troop transports in the early- and middle-20th century. A guidance document from 2000 says “the modification of a DUKW for commercial passenger service presents a unique challenge.”
The document also notes that “obviously, not all modifications took into consideration all aspects of land and water operations or safety.”
Further Coast Guard reviews found the Higgins’ “dewatering” capacity of 250 gallons per minute was designed “to allow the vehicle to sustain damage and operate in difficult conditions defined by the War Department as surf at shore over 3 feet, wind over 15 mph and wave height at launching ship over 3 feet.”
Stretch Duck 07 went down on Table Rock Lack near Branson, MO, midway through July. The boat’s operator didn’t heed severe weather advisories. Amateur footage shows the vessel listing in three-foot waves, all as winds topped 70 miles per hour.
Seventeen people were killed when the ill-prepared duck boat sank. Many of the victims were members of the same family.