BRANSON, Mo. — At first, the water splashing into the boat was comforting, a cool-down on a hot day.
But then came a massive swell that rocked the boat, and Tia Coleman started getting nervous. Before she knew it, another wave tore through, the boat sank, and she could not see or feel anything. Not the son who had been sitting next to her, not her other two children, not any of the 10 family members who had joined her on an amphibious tourist bus — or duck boat — Thursday afternoon.
“Lord, please let me get to my babies,” she prayed at one point, recalling the ordeal at a news conference Saturday.
“If they don’t make it, Lord, take me too,” she thought at another.
As it turned out, Coleman, 34, and her 13-year-old nephew, Donovan, were the only members of the Coleman family to survive one of the deadliest duck boat accidents in the country’s history.
The Colemans, who had been on their annual summer road trip, accounted for nine of the 17 deaths in the accident in this popular tourist destination in southern Missouri. In an instant, three generations of this Indianapolis-based family had perished, leaving Coleman with the unimaginable task of moving forward.
When the duck boat entered the lake the skies seemed fine, Coleman said. At one point, she said, one of the two employees on the vehicle — one operated it on water, the other on land — told them not to worry about putting on their life jackets.
“If I was able to get a life jacket, I could have saved my babies,” she said. “Because they could have at least floated up to the top, and somebody could have grabbed them. And I wasn’t able to do that.”
Federal law requires life jackets to be available for each passenger on a boat, including duck boats, but the crew has discretion on when to tell passengers to wear them.
“He said, ‘Above you are your life jackets. There’s three sizes,’” Coleman recalled one of the workers telling the passengers. “He said, ‘I’m going to show you where they are but you won’t need them, so no need to worry.’ So we didn’t grab them.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has taken over the investigation into the accident, which had 14 survivors, including the captain of the boat.
Asked at the news conference whether she was happy that she had made it out of the lake alive, Coleman said, “I don’t know yet.”
“Going home, I already know it’s going to be completely, completely difficult,” she added. “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.”
Flanked by family members holding her hands, Coleman spoke from Cox Medical Center Branson, where she was recovering from her injuries. She smiled at times when recalling fond memories of her family and sobbed at others when discussing what she would miss.
She had come to Branson with her three children, her husband, and her husband’s father, mother, uncle, sister and two nephews. They had rented a van and made the roughly seven-hour drive from Indianapolis in an annual ritual that has taken them to places as far-flung as Mackinaw City, Michigan, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Mackinaw City was Coleman’s favorite. Myrtle Beach was the children’s. But wherever the destination, the trips revolved around the children.
The plan originally had been to go to Florida this year. But because Coleman’s mother-in-law, Belinda, was having health problems, the family decided on someplace closer, said Carolyn Coleman, a relative who lives in Georgia. It was the family’s first trip to Branson.
They immediately gravitated to the pool at the hotel because the children loved water, Coleman said.
“I caught myself sneaking off to get in the hot tub, and here come those little bodies, coming in there with me,” Coleman said. “They’re like, ‘Oh this feels so good, this feels so good.’ I said, ‘Get back in the kiddie pool.’”
They ate at the Golden Corral, where Coleman told her children they could eat as much as they wanted. She plied them with indulgent treats like cotton candy and rainbow sherbet.
The Colemans decided to ride the duck boat because it seemed like just the type of thing Coleman’s oldest son, Reece, who was autistic, would enjoy.
What Coleman and her family did not know was that duck boats have a history of safety issues, with the NTSB ordering operators, including the one here in Branson, to make safety improvements after 13 people were killed when one sank in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1999.
Before leaving for the boat tour, Coleman said, someone at Ride the Ducks, the tour company, said that because of the storm warning, they would do the lake part of the tour before the road portion.
The Colemans planned to go to dinner after the duck boat ride. Instead, after a vigorous struggle in the water during which she said she gave up and just let her body float, Coleman was left to wonder what if.