Missouri duck boat attraction closed Baltimore branch in 2009 amid worker safety concerns, unionization push

The duck boat tour attraction on which 17 people died Thursday in Missouri previously operated in Baltimore until 2009, when it closed a month after workers sought to organize because of safety and scheduling concerns.

Divers in Branson, Mo., recovered 17 bodies from Table Rock Lake on Thursday evening and Friday after a Ride the Ducks boat sank during stormy weather. Gusts of wind had reached 65 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Fourteen others survived, two of whom were hospitalized in critical condition.

In a statement posted to its website, Ride the Ducks Branson, which was acquired by Ripley Entertainment last year, said safety is its No. 1. priority. The company said it would be closed for business while it assists the families and supports the investigation.

“Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking,” the company said.

Ride the Ducks operated tours of Baltimore and the Inner Harbor from 2002 to 2009, allowing tourists to pass by historical sites on land before the vehicle would enter the Inner Harbor. At its height, the company gave up to 40 tours a day on eight vehicles in Baltimore.

The company ended its tours of Baltimore in September of 2009, when a Ride the Ducks executive told The Sun that investing more in the Baltimore branch was not worth the cost.

But a union representatives said at the time that the company had ended its Baltimore operation to retaliate against drivers and guides who had complained about the safety of workers, passengers and the amphibious vehicles themselves. The company had 23 seasonal employees and six who worked year-round, the Sun reported.

There has not been another duck boat company in Baltimore since Ride the Ducks left, according to Sara Warfield, vice president of communications for Visit Baltimore.

Phil Ornot, who was then a United Steelworkers organizer, alleged to the National Labor Relations Board that the company had intimidated, coerced and threatened staff. The union filed a petition to organize Ride the Ducks workers a month before the company announced it was closing the Baltimore attraction.

Records from the NLRB were not immediately available on Friday, but the workers’ case before the NLRB was withdrawn in 2010, online records show.

Ornot could not be reached on Friday. Bradley Hiles, a Missouri lawyer who represented the company in the labor dispute, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Jeanne Williams, a captain on Ride the Ducks boats in Baltimore, told City Paper in 2009 that she had supported the unionization efforts “because we were concerned for the safety of the vehicles, ourselves, and our passengers.”

“Management has ignored that,” Williams was quoted as saying. The former employee, who went by “Captain Smiley,” could not immediately be reached on Friday.

Bob Salmon, vice president of marketing and sales for Ride the Ducks, denied at the time that the union petition had anything to do with the company’s decision to end its Baltimore tours.

The tragedy in Branson, Mo. also recalled when a water taxi capsized in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in March of 2004, killing five in the Patapsco River off of Fort McHenry. That pontoon, called Lady D, overturned amid a gust of wind, spilling the captain, his mate and 23 passengers into the 44-degree waters.

A 6-year-old boy, an engaged couple and a mother and daughter were killed in the incident, which was the only water taxi tragedy ever in Baltimore and led to the closing of the Seaport Taxi company. It took 10 days for divers to recover the last victim of the accident.

The only water taxi company currently operating in Baltimore is Baltimore Water Taxi.

In an unsigned statement, the company said Friday it would evaluate the National Transportation Safety Board marine accident report after the federal probe of the Missouri accident is complete. The company said it “took a similar approach” following the 2004 accident in the harbor.

Baltimore Water Taxi’s website says that life jackets are available for emergency situations. The company did not answer questions about whether it was considering requiring passengers to wear them.

“The Baltimore Water Taxi continually monitors weather conditions that could adversely impact operations and follows” U.S. Coast Guard recommendations, the company said in the emailed statement. The company said that if hazardous weather is detected within three nautical miles of its operating area, it immediately halts service.

Named for their ability to travel on land and in water, duck boats have been involved in other serious accidents in the past, including the deaths of more than 40 people since 1999.

"Duck boats are death traps," said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there. "They're not fit for water or land because they are half car and half boat."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

nbogelburroughs@baltsun.com

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