Duck Duck Death

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It had become evening and it had started to rain.

The group of tourists had traveled around town on board the duck. Now they wanted one last thing – to go in the water in this amphibious tour vehicle that was combination bus and boat.

The duck’s “Captain” told them over the loudspeaker, “we’re going to attempt to go in the water now. I don’t know how long we can stay there because a storm’s coming in and it’s starting to get dark.

“As a reminder,” he added, “there are life vests above your seats, but you won’t be needing them since the duck is very safe and sturdy. We just keep them there to meet government regulations.”

Once in the middle of the body of water, the storm hit. Passengers felt the strong gusts, pushing waves into the cabin. They saw lightening strikes only a few miles away and loud thunder echoing off the water. Then the engine flooded and stalled.

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This was my experience riding the Discovery Channel Ducks in Baltimore in 2002, stranded in the Inner Harbor during a thunderstorm until another (non-duck) boat could come and rescue us. I’ve never been on a duck again.

When news came this past week of the deadly incident in Branson, it refreshed memories. It was only a matter of time.

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The company that operated both the Branson and Baltimore duck tours, Ride the Ducks, was established in 1977 by Bob McDowell in Branson, Missouri. He started off modifying World War II amphibious landing craft into tour vehicles, later building custom vehicles from start to finish in his plant, many of which were sold to other tour operators.

In 2002, McDowell began partnering with Herschend Family Entertainment, then based in Branson, which financed the duck tour expansion to Baltimore and other markets. Then in 2003, Herschend’s new CEO, Joel Manby, made his first major acquisition. Herschend became the new owner of Ride the Ducks.

For the most part, duck tours have operated safely over their 40 year history, but there have been some major accidents, including one that took place during Manby’s tenure at Herschend.

In July 2010, just two months after Manby appeared on the CBS television show Undercover Boss as a crew member of the Stone Mountain, Georgia Ride the Ducks, a Ride the Ducks vehicle in Philadephia suffered an engine fire and became stranded in the middle of the Delaware River, where it was hit by a barge, pulling it underwater and killing two passengers.

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In 2012, Herschend and the tugboat operator pushing the barge reached a $17 million settlement with the surviving passengers and the families of the deceased.

Deadly incidents involving ducks have not just been restricted to water. In another Philadelphia accident, this one in 2015, a duck hit and killed a 68-year old woman crossing the street.

Perhaps the most well known incident prior to last week involved Ride the Seattle Ducks, an independent operator using vehicles from the Branson plant. In 2015, the front axle of a duck sheared off and it veered into oncoming traffic on a bridge.

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The duck collided with a tour bus carrying foreign students, killing five of them. The vehicle’s manufacturer, Ride the Ducks (the company Herschend had purchased in 2003), was fined half a million dollars by the National Transportation Safety Board, with an additional half million in fines to be allotted if federal investigators found further violations of safety laws.

By the time of the fine over the Seattle incident, Ride the Ducks was no longer a Herschend subsidiary. In 2012, the year of the settlement over the Philadelphia collission, Herschend spun off Ride the Ducks as a separate company, maintaining a minority share and selling the majority to an undisclosed private investor.

Last year, the Branson tour operation was sold to the Jim Pattison Group of Vancouver, British Columbia, which has been operating it under its Ripley’s Believe It or Not! division. It was this location from which the duck that sank last week, killing seventeen, departed.

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As for the Baltimore location, it was shut down in 2009 by Herschend, amid local attempts to unionize the operation. According to a Sept 10 article that year in the Baltimore Sun, the union said employees’ “concerns primarily focus on safety, including scheduling breaks so operators weren’t taking back-to-back tours, as well as the safety of the vehicles themselves.”

Amphibious landing craft are fantastic for trained soldiers and marines to invade shores, but they’re just not designed for tourism. The shape of the front of the vehicle and the high elevation of the driver have resulted in numerous collisions. A number of duck operations don’t require seatbelts and, as for life vests, the ducks have traditionally operated within the minimum requirement of the local law. So, while we see Manby putting life vests on passengers at Stone Mountain in his Undercover Boss episode, he’s only applying them to children. At the time of filming, Georgia state law required ages 10 and under to wear life vests on waterborne moving vessels. In 2013, following a number of drownings the prior year (not duck related), the age was increased to 13.  As you can see in the following photo, adults are not required to and often are not seen wearing life vests on the Stone Mountain ducks. In most locations, such as Branson, they are made available, but never worn by passengers – both adults and children.

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What happened in Branson is just the latest in an ever-increasing chain of deadly accidents. In due time, a deadlier accident will take place. It’s just a waiting game.

There’s only one way to prevent it from happening – it just might be time for the duck boats to do what duck birds do – head off into the sunset.

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