Branson mourns for 17 killed when boat sinks

BRANSON, Mo. — The country-and-western tourist town of Branson, Missouri, mourned Friday for more than a dozen sightseers who were killed when a duck boat capsized and sank in stormy weather in the deadliest such accident in almost two decades.

Divers found four more bodies in Table Rock Lake, bringing the death toll to 17, including nine people from the same family and the crew member who was steering the amphibious vessel. In their initial assessment, authorities blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength.

“Branson is a city full of smiles,” Mayor Karen Best said. “We have so much fun here. But today we are grieving and crying.”

Trisha Ayers was among the mourners who stopped to pay their respects at a parked car that was covered with flowers because it was believed to belong to a dead tourist.

Ayers said she understood how the boat got caught on the lake because the weather Thursday evening changed in 10 minutes from sunshine to gale-force winds that bent traffic signs.

“I hope it won’t tarnish Branson,” she said with tears in her eyes. “About 80 percent of our income comes from tourists. We love them.”

The risk of heavy weather was apparent hours before the boat left shore.

The weather service station in Springfield, about 40 miles north of Branson, issued a severe thunderstorm watch for its immediate area Thursday, saying conditions were ripe for winds of 70 mph. It followed up at 6:32 p.m. with a severe thunderstorm warning for three counties that included Branson and the lake. The warning mentioned both locations.

The boat went down shortly after 7 p.m.

Suzanne Smagala with Ripley Entertainment, which owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, said they were assisting authorities.

Twenty-nine passengers and two crew members were aboard for a pleasure cruise.