Tia Coleman told WXIN-TV in Indianapolis that she and a nephew were among 11 relatives on a duck boat Thursday night on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri.
A severe thunderstorm whipped up the wind, and waves that battered the duck boat, which quickly took on water.
"Duck boats are death traps", said Andrew Duffy, an attorney whose law firm Philadelphia law firm handled litigation related to two fatal duck boat accidents there.
Lawyers who represented the families of two students who died in a 2010 duck boat sinking in Philadelphia have been calling for a ban on the amphibious vehicles since then.
Authorities have not publicly identified the dead but said they included a one-year-old child.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the name of the boat that sank was Stretch Duck 07, a 33-foot-long vessel built in 1944.
Jim Pattison, president of Ripley Entertainment, which owns the Branson "Ride The Ducks" tour company, said the strength of the storm was unexpected, but the duck boat should not have been in the lake.
National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Linderberg said a top wind speed of 100kmh was measured around 7pm Thursday at Branson Airport.
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Gerald Dworkin, a consultant for Lifesaving Resources, an aquatics safety training firm in ME, said, "Even if they were wearing a life jacket when the boat went down, unless they could evacuate through the side windows they would've been trapped by that canopy".
In an interview with CNN, Missouri Gov. Michael Parson called the incident "just a awful, horrific tragic accident".
"Debris was flying everywhere", Allison Lester said in an interview Friday with ABC's "Good Morning America".
Duck boats were originally used by the USA military in World War II to transport troops and supplies, and later were modified for use as sightseeing vehicles.
Thirteen people died in 1999 when the duck boat they were riding near Hot Springs, Arkansas, sank suddenly. Video examined by the NTSB showed the driver taking his eyes off the road and turning in his seat to point out landmarks during the tour. At least two were in a critical condition in hospital. "We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved", Ride the Ducks Branson said in a statement on its website. Boat crews are supposed to give safety briefings to passengers at the beginning of a journey. Another duck boat on the lake made it safely back to shore.
Ride the Ducks Branson said it was deeply saddened and has closed the business due to the investigation and to allow the community and families time to grieve.
The amphibious vehicle went down in about 40 feet of water Thursday during rough weather at Table Rock Lake. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and the victims in this tragic event that's occurred down here", said Parson. "I believe that a lot of people could have been spared", Coleman said.
Video footage shot by a witness on shore showed strong waves tossing two duck boats side to side. "I am trying to figure out why the boats were out there".
Pat Cox, owner of a marina about a half mile from where the vessel went down, sent five boats and some 20 people to the rescue, most between the ages of 18 and 20. "This incident has deeply affected all of us". He wrote Friday on Twitter, "Such a tragedy, such a great loss".