When Tia Coleman boarded a duck boat in Branson, Missouri, on Thursday, crew members showed her where life jackets, in three different sizes, were stored.
But she says no one on the vessel told her to grab them as the ship started to fill with water, leaving it to capsize and steal 17 lives. Nine of her family members were among those killed, including three of her own children. She says if she had life jackets she could have saved her children.
"They could have at least floated up to the top and someone could have grabbed them," she said, starting to cry. "And I wasn't able to do that."
A report released Saturday by the Missouri State Highway Patrol shows none of the passengers or crew were wearing a "safety device." While life jackets are a normal, and life-saving, accessory in aquatic recreational activities, they weren't required to be worn on the Ride the Ducks boats that Coleman rode on and some experts argue that the safety equipment could actually have made escaping the sinking vessel even harder.
"There is certainly the possibility that the extra flotation could instead trap someone against that canopy and cause them to drown," said Gary Haupt, a former captain with the former Missouri Water Patrol, which has now been absorbed into the Missouri Highway Patrol.
Duck boats are amphibious vessels that were originally used by the U.S. military in World War II to transport troops and supplies by land and sea. Later they were modified for use as sightseeing vehicles. They are used in many big cities, including Boston and Washington, D.C.
The boats aren't new to controversy and have been involved in other deadly accidents over the years, both on land and in water. The boats sit low in the water, leaving them more susceptible to being overcome by water, especially when hit with 5-foot waves like those on Thursday.
The closest resemblance to the Missouri tragedy is the sinking of a duck boat in 1999 in Arkansas that left 13 dead.
After the Miss Majestic sank on Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs, seven passengers were found trapped inside, including four who were pinned against the ship's canopy, which acts as a roof.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the canopy trapped them as the ship went down and helped contribute to the high loss of life.
Life jackets aren't required on vessels that have a cover like that of the duck boats. The worry is the life jackets would cause passengers to rise to the surface and be caught in the canopy.
Experts have been debating the use of life jackets on these boats for years.
"I think you could ask 10 experts and they'd all have different opinions," Haupt said. "There's the possibility that life jackets could cause more loss of life but, then at the same time, they could help someone get to the surface if they make it out and actually save their life."
"I think there's a lot of variables," he added.
Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose firm represented victims of a deadly 2010 duck boat crash in Philadelphia, has dubbed the boats "death traps" and called for them to be banned.
Duffy called the canopies an "extreme defect" that makes a deadly situation even worse.
"People get trapped in the canopy, the life jackets force them up but the canopy pulls them down," he said. "It's a Hobson's choice (a choice of taking what is available or nothing at all). You want to wear a life jacket, but at the same time, you have greater survivability without the life jacket, combined with the canopy."
Attorney Robert Clifford, whose Chicago-based law firm specializes in maritime cases, says there's no question that every passenger should have had life jackets on.
"You can certainly conjure up scenarios where a life jacket could have trapped someone but the same can be said with seat belts in cars," he said. "At the end of the day, on average, you're better off and your survival rate is better if you're wearing a life vest."
Indeed, statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard show about 83 percent of drowning victims who were boating in the U.S. were not wearing a life jacket. Clifford added the history of deadly accidents involving duck boats shows these vessels need to be better regulated.
"There's no excuse. Whenever you're transporting the public, you are responsible for providing the highest level of safety and that's not what we saw here" he said. "The minute they thought they were in trouble they should have had on life jackets."
After the 1999 capsizing, the NTSB found duck boats don't have adequate reserve buoyancy and recommended canopies be taken off all duck boats and life jackets be made mandatory until changes were made.
Jim Hall, who was NTSB chairman at the time of the Arkansas disaster, told the Kansas City Star, that the safety board cannot enact regulations, which is frustrating when the agency is ignored.
"The bottom line is, why are these boats still being used? Hall told the newspaper. "These boats were not designed for recreational use, especially with large numbers of people and weather like this. The operator and the regulators know the danger. So to see these repeat occurrences, it’s just infuriating."
He noted the Coast Guard is partially to blame because it "has unfortunately not been as effective as it needs to be in trying to protect passengers on our waterways."
Contributing: Gregory J. Holman, Springfield News-Leader