BRANSON, Mo. - The Coleman family had initially thought of going on a vacation to Florida for their annual trip, but the drive was too long for some elderly relatives who wanted to join. The Colemans settled on going to Branson, a southwestern Missouri resort city about seven hours away from their hometown of Indianapolis. They rented a van, and on Tuesday the family of 11 spanning three generations headed out on summer vacation together.
The trip turned fatal just two days later, after all of them got on an amphibious vehicle for what should have been a 70-minute guided tour around a lake in the Ozarks. The boat struggled against the turbulent waves on Table Rock Lake, a normally placid body of water churned by a violent thunderstorm. The vehicle took on water, capsized and sank, settling at the bottom, taking 17 lives with it.
Of those 17 victims, nine were members of the Coleman family, the youngest a 1-year-old girl. Only two of the Coleman group on the boat survived, Tia Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew, Donovan.
Tia Coleman’s husband and all of her three children died.
"You don’t know how many times I wished they would’ve went to Florida," said Carolyn Coleman, whose husband, Gary, lost two brothers, nieces and nephews in the accident.
On Friday night, Carolyn, who lives in Georgia, said she called Tia while she was recovering at a hospital in Branson. Tia’s voice was calm on the phone, and Carolyn assumed she was probably still in shock, as if the weight of her loss had yet to take its toll.
Lying in a hospital bed, Tia Coleman told reporters that "big swells of water" gushed into the boat as huge waves swept over it.
"The last thing I heard my sister-in-law yell was, ‘Grab the baby!’" Coleman said. Her sister-in-law also died.
There were life jackets on the boat, but Coleman said the captain told them they didn’t need to use them.
"We’re told to stay seated and everybody stay seated," she said. "Nobody, nobody - when that boat is found, all those life jackets are going to be on there."
In total, 14 people survived - fewer than half the boat’s passengers and crew - on Thursday evening.
The tragedy was a sudden departure from what had been, for many, a beautiful summer day in the Midwestern retreat. Dark clouds, whipping winds and heavy rains had abruptly turned a routine tour into a disaster for 29 passengers and two crew members.
"When tourists come to Branson, they’re our family, and we want to take care of our family. Branson is a city of smiles," city spokeswoman Melody Pettit said Friday afternoon as she left Branson City Hall, where staffers were cleaning up leftover food and water donations for the victims. "Right now, we’re hurting and we’re not smiling."
Santino Tomasetti arrived at the Showboat Branson Belle, a riverboat restaurant not far from where the boat sank, just as first responders were pulling people out of the water. Those who made it to shore were shivering, in shock, drained - and Tomasetti scurried to get dry clothing and chairs so paramedics could examine them. It was then, he said, that reality started to hit them.
"There were a lot of people who just, the second they had a minute to calm down, they were crying. They were starting to panic," Tomasetti said, noting that he wanted to help in any way possible.
On Friday night, hundreds of community members and tourists lit candles, prayed and sang for the victims and their families, gathering outside the office of Ride the Ducks Branson, the company that owned and operated the boat. Tomasetti stood in the front of the crowd in the embrace of his loved ones, all in tears. Outside the office were the cars that the victims had left before they boarded the boat. Josh Daniel, who lives nearby, placed one flower on each car earlier that day.
"It broke us all," he said.
The cars later were covered with flowers, teddy bears, balloons and handwritten signs. Daniel Scott took a knee as he placed one hand against the passenger-side door of a white SUV and prayed for the family that lost nine of its members.
Soon, the crowd broke into song amid sniffles and sobs: "Amazing Grace," "How Great Thou Art" and "It Is Well With My Soul."
At Rock Lane Resort and Marina, a rowdy crowd and a live band that had been playing country music at a tiki bar suddenly went quiet as people began to gather at a hasty memorial that included candles, roses and teddy bears. Two young men sat in front, lighting tiny red candles. Neither of them knew the victims, but they said they felt compelled to join, both to say prayers and show gratitude.
"If it wasn’t for them people, we wouldn’t have a town," said Stephen Lyons, who is in construction and often works on vacation homes in Branson. Lyons said he owes his livelihood to people like those who were on the duck boat on Thursday - millions of tourists who come to Branson every year and fuel the town’s economy.
"They could’ve gone anywhere else in the world, but they came here," said the other young man, Stephen Noe.
Branson, near the Arkansas border with a population of 10,500, sees about 8 million tourists annually and is a destination for country music, amusement parks and outdoor activities. Among its popular attractions are the duck boats; Ride the Ducks has been in Branson for more than four decades.
Questions remain about why the boat was in the water, despite forecasts and a warning of a potentially violent storm. Jim Pattison Jr., president of Ripley Entertainment, parent company of Ride the Ducks, said the storm came on suddenly and took the crew by surprise. But the National Weather Service before noon had predicted the possibility of serious storms and high winds by late Thursday afternoon; the boat sank at about 7 p.m.
"Why did that boat even go out? When you’re on vacation and you’re touring, you expect whoever’s running these facilities to be alert on weather and anything else in the surroundings that could bring harm to anyone," Carolyn Coleman said.
The driver, Branson resident Robert "Bob" Williams, 73, is among the dead.
The passengers who died came from four states. William Asher, 69; Rosemarie Hamann, 68; Janice Bright, 63; and William Bright, 65, were from Missouri. Two - Steve Smith, 53; and Lance Smith, 15 - were from Arkansas. One, Leslie Dennison, 64, was from Illinois. Nine were from Indiana, all from the Coleman family: Angela, 45; Belinda, 69; Ervin, 76; Glenn, 40; Horace, 70; Reece, 9; Eva, 7; Maxwell, 2; and Arya, 1.
Gripping footage from the lake showed the boat seesawing and lurching in unrelenting waves, as 65-mph gusts of wind hit it with spray. Before long, the small, flat-bottomed half-boat half-bus sank, plunging 80 feet to the bottom of the lake. One other duck boat was on the lake Thursday and made it to shore.
David Plummer, associate pastor at Noble Hill Baptist Church, said that as he watched the footage online, he believed the driver continued steering the boat even as the water swallowed it.
"Lord help him," Plummer remembered thinking. "He didn’t have a chance. I watched him. That man gave his life."
Carolyn Coleman said she and her husband are planning to make a trip to Indiana for the funeral after the bodies are released.
"He’s trying to hang in there," she said of her husband. "I’m just trying to stand by my husband and support him with what we’re having to endure. This is a lot."
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The Washington Post’s Mark Berman and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux in Washington contributed to this report.