Friday, August 17, 2018 –The US Coast Guard — itself under intense scrutiny — appears to be referring the DUKW Stretch 7 case to federal criminal investigators even before the formal US Marine Board of Investigation completes its report — an unusual action that could create tension among various investigators of the tragedy.
The Coast Guard is in a hot-seat itself because of some criticisms that it did not heed adequately a clear warning from the National Transportation Safety Board following another DUKW tragedy in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1999. The Miss Majestic sank then with the death of 13.
“The Coast Guard knows a lot of this is going to fall onto them and that the National Transportation Safety Board will fault them,” one maritime safety expert said. “The Coast Guard does not have a great history here and it may be that the Coast Guard is trying to get out in front of this by saying from the start that criminal investigators should sort out how serious this is rather than have the Marine Board alone look at these matters.”
The criminal referral surfaced when sources expert in maritime safety close to the investigation revealed that the US Attorney for the Western District of Missouri is commencing an inquiry into violations of federal law at the direct request of the Coast Guard. The DUKW Stretch 7 sank at Table Rock, Missouri, in July with the death of 17. Critics have said regulators did not adequately rein in DUKW boats despite a series of mishaps.
The sources also said that the Marine Board has finished calling witnesses for the time being at least.
It was unclear whether local “sector” investigators of the Coast Guard referred the case to the US Attorneys Office or officials of the nationally chartered Marine Board — the highest level of Coast Guard investigations. The Marine Board began hearings on August 1.
“There is a delicate balance between when the Marine Board of Investigation takes over from the local investigators,” said one maritime safety specialist. “Often, the local investigating officer (IO) will be kept on to work with the Marine Board because they have been working the case from the beginning and they may have developed intimate knowledge of the case.
“Alternatively, the Marine Board may have uncovered something that merited conversation with the US Attorney,” the expert continued.
One explanation offered for the “early referral” is that the Coast Guard may move quickly against the owners-operators because the Coast Guard inspection of the boat approved it but warned it should not be operated in winds or storms. The boat was racing to shore in a storm when the wreck occurred. The quick action could soften critique of the Coast Guard for not aggressively following NTSB suggestions. From a “crisis communication” standpoint, the strategy could deflect critique of the Coast Guard.
But the concept of parallel criminal and Marine Board probes could complicate matters, forcing the Marine Board to subpena witnesses who potentially face criminal charges. Normally, the Marine Board convenes, calls witnesses and makes recommendations weeks later on potential criminal actions. It is not an indicting body but its recommendations carry great weight.
For example, a Marine Board recommendation for criminal action in the case of the SS Marine Electric resulted in a felony guilty plea from the ship’s owner.
Another complexity is that the National Transportation Safety Board generally conducts joint hearings with the Coast Guard Marine Board. But in this case, the NTSB may in fact be investigating the Coast Guard itself.
The NTSB message to the Coast Guard 16 years ago was indeed clear.
“Contributing to the unsafe condition of the Miss Majestic was the lack of adequate oversight by the Coast Guard,” the NTSB report stated. in 2002.
The NTSB also warned:
“Because the industry has, by and large, refused to take voluntary action to address this risk, the safety board considers it imperative that the Coast Guard take steps to ensure that all amphibious passenger vehicles will not sink in the event of an uncontrolled flooding event.” (Ital added)
Former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall recently referenced the 1999 disaster and called the boats “unregulated amusement park rides.
“My feeling after seeing this one is that the only thing to do in the name of public safety is to ban them. It’s the responsible thing to do to ensure (riders) are not put at risk,” he told USA Today.
“Referring this for criminal investigation before the Coast Guard marine board really even gets underway is very unusual, ” said one maritime safety expert.
The action could signal that preliminary investigation by the Coast Guard has discovered serious potential violations by the operators that demand immediate attention.
Coast Guard public affairs spokes persons were not immediately available for comment today. The US Attorneys office for Western Missouri said it does not comment about investigations — and neither confirms nor denies the existence of this one.
The federal prosecutors have a wider and deeper reach for criminal prosecution than state and local authorities — who are reviewing licensing violations. The state attorney general’s investigation is being linked to the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.
The “DUKW” name is a manufacturer’s designation of the original World War II era vehicles. “D” stands for the year 1942. “U” means utility (amphibious); “K” means all wheel drive and “W” means two powered rear axles exist. The original vehicles were designed primarily for use as landing crafts. Modern day vehicles are more complex and said by owners to be more stable than the originals. Few of the original DUKWs carry passengers.
The need for more strict regulation of the vessels by a public agency is suggested by the general public unawareness of the challenges of DUKW vessels on land and on water.
“I took the grandkids on the Duck because I thought they would get a kick out of being in a vehicle rolling on land that suddenly became a vehicle in the water,” says one recent TripAdvisor review about the Hot Springs, Arkansas, DUKW boat ride.
Indeed, enthusiastic reviews of the ill-fated Missouri rides continue to abound. A Trip Advisor review of DUKW Table Rock, for example, gives it glowing reviews. Yelp notes that the DUKW ride is closed now but participants also rate it a four start attraction.