Two captains targeted in criminal investigation after 17 killed in Missouri duck boat accident

PHOTO: A handout frame grab made available by the Southern Stone County Fire Protection District shows responding agencies after an amphibious duck boat reportedly capsized on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., July 19, 2018. PlaySouthern Stone County Fire Protection District/EPA/Rex/Shutterstock
WATCH Eyewitnesses describe deadly duck boat accident

The captains on board the two Ride the Ducks boats struggling through rough waters on a Missouri lake until one sank, killing seventeen people, are targets of a criminal investigation, according to documents filed in federal court on Wednesday and obtained by ABC News.

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Kenneth McKee, the captain of the sunken boat, and Barry King, the captain of the boat that made it to shore without any fatalities, "are aware of their status as targets of the Government action," the filing says.

Ripley Entertainment, the company that owned and operated the duck boats, and “several Ripley agents, employees, or officers" are also targets of the investigation, according to the documents. The investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed.

ABC News' requests for comment from the captains have gone unanswered.

The investigation stems from an accident that took place on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri when a storm struck while two duck boats used for tours of the lake struggled to reach shore. One of them, captained by McKee, was overwhelmed by the conditions and sank. Seventeen of 31 passengers died, including nine members of a single family.

According to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting its own independent investigation from the criminal probe, the captain of the ill-fated boat checked the weather reports and discussed safety procedures, including the location of life jackets prior to the event.

"In the vicinity of the boat ramp, the captain began a safety briefing regarding the water portion of the tour," the report states. "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."

Five minutes after the boat entered the water, white caps "rapidly appeared."

"In the final minutes of the recording, water occasionally splashes inside the vehicle’s passenger compartment," according to the report.

The boat was not supposed to operate in water if winds in the area clocked in at 35 mph or waves were higher than 2 feet, according to the vessel's certificate of inspection, released by the U.S. Coast Guard. On the night of July 19, winds on the Table Rock Lake hit 73 mph, and the waves were higher than three feet, officials said. It is unclear what the wind speeds and wave measurements on the lake were when the duck boat entered the water.

The National Weather Service outpost in Springfield, Missouri, had issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for the area that night, predicting winds of up to 60 miles per hour.

A $100 million federal lawsuit has been filed in Kansas City, Missouri by lawyers representing victims of the Indiana family that lost nine relatives, including four children, in the accident. The lawsuit alleges that the duck boat operators were negligent in not heeding weather advisories of an impending storm.

The court filing Wednesday was a request to delay the collection of evidence for the civil suits until the government’s criminal investigation is completed.