Throughout our lives, some of us will experience heartbreaking tragedies along the way. Tia Coleman’s loss was more devastating than most, though, as nine members of her family died on a lake in July 2018. Then, after some time had passed, Tia eventually revealed the truth about what had happened on that fateful day.
Residents of Indianapolis, Indiana, Tia and her husband Glenn were the proud parents of three children named Reece, Evan and Arya. And in the summer of 2018, the Colemans embarked on a big family vacation, joining six other relatives on a trip to Branson, Missouri.
A popular tourist destination, Branson is home to several different attractions, including the Silver Dollar City theme park. However, the town is also recognized for its duck boat tours, with journeys taken on vehicles that are able to traverse both water and land.
Perhaps due to that versatility, duck boats are a staple attraction in waterfront cities across America. In Branson’s case, visitors are led through the town on duck boats before arriving at Table Rock Lake. From there, the amphibious vehicles enter the water via a ramp, with the driver of each boat typically then handing over the reins to a captain.
And on July 19, 2018, Tia and her family decided to take one of those tours, joining 18 other passengers and a pair of crew members on a duck boat. However, while the vehicle traveled across Table Rock Lake, it was hit by a violent thunderstorm with winds of over 70 mph.
Then, with the surrounding waves reaching heights of up to six feet, the duck boat ultimately capsized and sank 80 feet below the surface. Before the vehicle became submerged, though, crew members from a larger vessel dived into the lake in an attempt to save the 31 people on board. But, sadly, they couldn’t rescue everyone.
Following the storm, Branson authorities confirmed that 17 passengers had been killed in the accident. Tragically, nine of those victims were members of Tia’s family, with only the mom and her teenage nephew surviving. And in the hours that followed, the media started asking questions about the duck boat tour company and its practices.
When asked by CBS This Morning as why the duck boat had still been in the lake at the time of the storm, the president of Ripley Entertainment, the parent company of the duck boat operator, responded as best he could. Jim Pattison Jr. said, “I don’t have all the details. But to answer your question, no. [The boat] shouldn’t have been in the water if what happened, happened.”
“This business has been operating for 47 years. And we’ve never had an incident like this or anything close to it,” Pattison continued. “To the best of our knowledge – and we don’t have a lot of information now – but it was a fast-moving storm that came out of basically nowhere is sort of the verbal analysis I’ve got.”
And the National Transportation Safety Board, responsible for conducting the investigation into the tragic events, would release an early report about the accident. “In the vicinity of the boat ramp, the captain began a safety briefing regarding the water portion of the tour,” the findings read. “The briefing included the location of emergency exits as well as the location of the life jackets.”
“The captain then demonstrated the use of a life jacket and pointed out the location of the life rings,” the report added. However, according to Tia, the duck boat captain had assured his passengers that the life preservers wouldn’t be needed on the lake – despite him having knowledge of the coming storm.
“[The captain] said, ‘Above you are your life jackets. There are three sizes,’” Tia recalled in a press conference just days after the accident. “He said, ‘I’m gonna show you where they are, but you won’t need them. So, no need to worry.’ So, we didn’t grab them.”
Despite the unimaginable anguish she was in, the mom then paid a loving tribute to each of the nine people she had lost, who included Glenn and their children. Her husband’s parents and sister also died on that tragic day as well as an uncle and nephew.
After that, Tia made a July 2018 appearance on the web television show Anderson Cooper Full Circle, where she looked back on the tragic accident in greater detail. “I was in the very front seat [with] my oldest son, who I explained earlier is on the autism spectrum. He [was] very excitable,” the mom said. “So, I wanted to make sure [that] I [could] keep a hold of him.”
“As the first big wave came in, it looked like the water came into the boat. Then it washed out the back,” Tia continued. “[And] when the last big wave came in, I lost a hold of my baby. I didn’t know the boat had capsized, I thought it just went under. [So] I jumped up and immediately started floating.”
Struggling to escape, Tia eventually reached the surface. She was then taken by rescuers to the bigger vessel that had been docked on the lake. “When they got me situated, I didn’t see any of my people. And then my nephew came running out,” she added. Then, after discovering the full extent of the accident, the mother was given bittersweet news about Glenn and their kids.
“Somebody told me that when they found my husband, he had all three of my babies,” Tia explained to Anderson Cooper Full Circle. “So, the reason I couldn’t find them is because he was protecting them. That right there will keep me fighting for my family forever.”
Then, in August 2018 Tia called for duck boats to be banned; the vehicles, she said, were “death traps.” During that period, the accident was also under the microscope of two federal investigations as well as a state investigation into any potential criminal liability. The issues didn’t end there, though.
The duck boat tour company has additionally been sued for $100 million by the administrators of two Coleman family estates. According to attorney Robert Mongeluzzi, the vehicle’s canopy had ensnared the passengers as the boat sunk. With that in mind, it was noted that if the company had followed a safety recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board back in 2002, the canopy would have not have been present.
And as the lawsuit and investigations continue, Missouri senator Claire McCaskill has brought forward a bill to improve the safety of vehicles such as duck boats. “It’ll take some time before we know exactly what went wrong in Branson. But there’s absolutely no reason to wait to take this common-sense step,” she said after the accident. Sadly, though, any prospective new laws have come way too late for Tia and her family.