The captain of a duck boat that capsized in July on a Missouri lake, killing 17 people, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the wreck.
Kenneth Scott McKee, 51, faces 17 counts related to "acts of misconduct, negligence or inattention to duty," one for each victim, according to the indictment, which was announced Thursday by the US Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Tim Garrison.
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The violations are colloquially known as "seaman's manslaughter," Garrison said.
A federal grand jury found that McKee failed to properly assess incoming weather before and while he put the vessel in the water, entered the vessel on the water as severe weather approached, failed to instruct passengers to put on personal flotation devices and operated the duck boat in violation of its conditions and limitations, among other acts, according to the indictment.
The federal criminal investigation into the deadly wreck on Table Rock Lake, near the tourist hub of Branson, Missouri, began after the US Coast Guard in July determined the deaths resulted from the captain's actions. The investigation is ongoing, Garrison told reporters Thursday.
Ripley Entertainment, which runs the duck boat tours called Ride the Ducks Branson, said in a statement Friday they are cooperating with authorities in an ongoing investigation of the incident.
"We recognize the importance of the grand jury process and are continuing to cooperate with the US Attorney's Office and other authorities as they determine the facts surrounding the accident that occurred on July 19th," public relations manager Suzanne Smagala-Potts said in the statement.
"Above all, we are committed to supporting all our guests, employees, and families who were affected by the accident. We offer our sincere condolences to them, and to the entire community of Branson, Missouri."
McKee's attorney, J.R. Hobbs, confirmed to CNN he is reviewing the indictment against his client but is not making any comment regarding the allegations.
McKee is not in custody, Garrison said, adding that the charges announced Thursday are the first criminal indictments related to the incident. The US attorney would not say whether McKee has been cooperating with the probe. Hobbs said he is in the process of scheduling an initial court appearance by McKee.
Survivor Tia Coleman, whose husband, three children and five other relatives were killed in the duck boat wreck, commended Garrison as the indictments were announced.
"While nothing can ever ease the grief in my heart, I am grateful that the US Attorney's Office is fighting for justice for my family, and the other victims, and is committed to holding fully accountable all those responsible for this tragedy," she said in a statement.
In case of a conviction, each count against McKee carries possible prison time of up to 10 years and a fine of as much as $250,000.
Captain's judgment of weather examined
McKee's actions related to the day's weather also have been scrutinized by the National Transportation Safety Board, which in July noted, "The captain made a verbal reference to looking at the weather radar prior to the trip," citing video recorded on the boat.
The first 911 call regarding the duck boat sinking came at 7:09 p.m. on July 19.
According to weather data, a severe thunderstorm had traveled hundreds of miles, prompting severe-weather alerts in the hours before it hit the lake.
Counties northwest of the Branson area were issued thunderstorm warnings at 5:45 p.m. The Branson area was placed under a severe thunderstorm warning shortly after 6:30 p.m.
A woman who was on the nearby Showboat Branson Belle, a riverboat docked near the sinking ship, recorded video of the duck boat sinking.
At least three vessels were on the lake, including the two Ride the Ducks boats rocking and tilting to the side as ripples turned into massive waves, her video shows.
Strong winds whipped waves head-on onto the boats.
Duck boats' long history
Duck boats can travel on land and water and are popular among tourists in major cities. The boats date to World War II, when such vessels were used because of their versatility.
In Branson, tour drivers maneuver them along city streets before handing off to a captain, who uses a ramp to enter the lake.
The boat that capsized was carrying 31 passengers. Its driver died.
Branson, a popular family vacation destination, is about 200 miles southeast of Kansas City, Missouri.