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At least 17 are dead after a severe storm flooded a tourist boat on a southwestern Missouri lake. Warning: Video contains emotionally or visually disturbing content. USA TODAY

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BRANSON, Mo. – As hundreds gathered Friday evening during two candlelight vigils to honor the 17 people who died when an amphibious duck boat capsized during a severe storm, officials examining the accident cautioned it could be a year or longer before an investigation is complete. 

Mourners carrying bouquets of flowers and balloons gathered outside the Ride the Ducks business, the company that owned the tourist boat. Many wrote condolences on large posters or left stuffed animals as the crowd prayed and held up candles.

Another vigil at Brookside Church included dozens of mourners lighting candles, singing "Amazing Grace" and praying. Faith leaders offered words of support to help the grief-stricken community make sense of the tragedy. 

"It's important to pray. Sometimes when I don't know what to do, I find comfort when I pray," Pastor Kevin Reich told the crowd. 

While a severe thunderstorm had hit around the time of the boat's capsizing, causing 5-foot waves on Table Rock Lake, much of what specifically caused the boat to sink – while other vessels withstood the harsh conditions – is unclear. Officials at the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, said it could be a year or longer before all the answers are found. 

"It will take us a year to determine not only what caused it to sink but perhaps what in the infastructure that set up the situation that resulted in the sinking," NTSD board member Early Weener said Friday evening. "It is always very seductive to try to have a press conference like this and say here's what happened. We would like you to be much more patient while we determine" the "root cause."

Weener said the investigation was just beginning but within about a month, a preliminary report would be released that could provide some information about what happened.

The 17 people killed ranged in age from 1 to 70 and included nine members of one family that was on vacation from Indiana.

"My heart is very heavy. Out of 11 of us, there's only two that survived – that's me and my nephew. I lost all of my children. I lost my husband," Tia Coleman, one of the surviving family members aboard the vessel, told FOX 59. "I'm OK but this is really hard."

More: 'Our hearts just hurt': Nine Indiana family members among Branson duck boat victims

More: 'God spared my child': Mom of Branson duck boat survivor speaks out

The driver of the Ride the Ducks tourist boat, Robert “Bob” Williams, was also among the victims as the vessel sank in 40 feet of water, Branson Mayor Karen Best said. 

At least seven other passengers were injured, including two who were in serious condition, Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader said. 

Branson is about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City and is a popular vacation spot for families and other tourists looking for entertainment ranging from theme parks to live music. The boats are a fun attraction for families but have been involved in other deadly incidents over the years. 

Some lawmakers in Missouri said they were considering actions that would prevent another accident. 

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she would examine "legislative solutions" to increase the safety of amphibious vehicles like duck boats, but she did not offer any specifics. Passengers aboard the vessel were not required by law to wear lifejackets, the president of the company that owns Ride the Ducks in Branson said in an interview Friday. 

The boat, a hybrid land and water vehicle, had 31 people on board on the lake when the incident happened near the Showboat Branson Belle. Overnight and throughout the morning Friday, officials searched Table Rock Lake for missing passengers. Four bodies were found, causing the death toll to increase to 17.

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Amphibious vehicles are popular as tourist attractions, but have a history of fatal accidents. USA TODAY

An off-duty sheriff's deputy, who was working on the showboat when a line of the thunderstorms blew through between 6:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., jumped in the water to save some of the passengers, Rader said.

Jeff and Jennie Carr, who were boarding the Branson Belle to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary, watched in horror as wind-whipped waves swamped the duck boat filled with passengers.

"I see two boats in the water and the waves were just going over the top of the one that sank," Carr said. "It was awful. It looked like he was having trouble. He was going right into the waves but the wind was trying to turn him around."

Carr said she saw passengers aboard the duck boat sitting down, with the plastic windows rolled down to try to keep the water out.

"You could see water going into the boat," she said. "I did see he was starting to sink. It was leaning to the right."

Carr said the duck boat was blown behind the Branson Belle and she lost sight of it.

"I told another person nearby 'It's going down.' That's the last we saw of it."

Timeline: Fatal duck boat accidents in the past

Rader said the boat came to rest upright on its wheels in 80 feet of water. The vessel was expected to be pulled from the lake no earlier than Monday. 

Rader said it was too early to know the cause of the incident. He said there were life jackets in the boat but it's not clear if they were used.

Those who had family aboard were frantic as they waited for word on their loved ones. Mandi Keller spent Thursday night repeatedly calling police stations and sheriff's offices in southwest Missouri, hoping to find out whether her 15-year-old daughter was OK. 

Keller said her daughter, Gillian, was visiting Branson from their Texas home to see her father and his family. Her daughter along with many of the 31 people aboard the vessel became trapped under the ship's canopy but her daughter was able to make it out OK. 

"I feel fortunate," Keller said. "God spared my child and she is coming home alive and not in a body bag."

Jim Pattison Jr., president of the company that owns Ride the Ducks in Branson, told "CBS This Morning" that in hindsight the boat "shouldn't have been in the water."

Despite saying that, Pattison — who was interviewed by phone Friday from Branson — also appeared to defend the decision not to halt the tours. He said the lake was hit by a "fast-moving storm that came out of basically nowhere."'

Asked if passengers on the boats were required to wear life jackets, Pattison said no. "Under law they're not required to."

He told CBS: "We've never had an incident like this or anything close to it."

Parson, the governor, said other details of the accident remained unclear as local, state and federal authorities began an investigation.

“It’s a sad occasion, a lot of people involved,” he said. “A lot of families involved, down here on vacation trying to enjoy time, and it ends up with an incident like this.”

A second duck boat on the lake made it safely to shore. The U.S. military in World War II originally used duck boats to transport troops and supplies, and they were later modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.

Duck boats, which can travel on land and in water, have been involved in other deadly incidents in the past. Five college students were killed in 2015 in Seattle when a duck boat collided with a bus, and 13 people died in 1999 when a duck boat sank near Hot Springs, Arkansas.

In 2010, a distracted tug boat pilot, who had been on his cellphone or laptop because of a family emergency, rammed a barge into a stalled duck boat in the Delaware River, in Philadelphia, throwing 35 people into the water. Two Hungarian students died in the incident.

“Duck boats are death traps,” said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. “They’re not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat.”

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The storm Thursday night in Branson hit the lake with 80 mph winds that kicked up waves 5 feet high, said Capt. Jim Pulley, owner of Sea Tow Table Rock Lake.

National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning Thursday evening for the Branson area. Meteorologist Steve Lindenberg said a top wind speed of 63 mph was measured at the Branson Airport near 7 p.m. and likely was stronger over the lake.

President Donald Trump, in a tweet, extended his “deepest sympathies” to those affected by the boat accident. “Such a tragedy, such a great loss. May God be with you all!” he tweeted.

Schmitt reports for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. Stanglin reported from McLean, Va. Hayes reported from Washington. Contributing: Megan Henry, The Indianapolis Star; The Associated Press

 

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