Tia Coleman walked onto the Ride the Ducks boat with 10 members of her family, including her three small children ages 1, 7 and 9, and her husband. Only Tia and a nephew made it off.
Now the Indianapolis, Indiana woman is showing uncommon grace under the pressure of unthinkable tragedy to bear witness to what happened – and to the lives lost – from her hospital bed and out of it. Tia appeared at an emotional, tear-filled press conference on July 21, 2018 in which she described each lost family member by name, describing what she would say to each of them if she could see them again.
Coleman would tell her son to “be anything he wanted to be” and she would tell her daughter to “always look out for your brothers. Keep the family together.” She would “tell my husband what I always tell him. We’re in this life for better or worse.”
“God must have something for me because there’s no way I should be here,” Tia Coleman added, breaking into tears at several points in the heart-wrenching press conference.
“I’ve had tons of family members and friends sending requests and asking how I’m doing and supporting,” said Tia. “That’s the only way I’m getting through this. Through God. A lot of people here in the city, I’ve had pastors in the city come, and they’ve prayed for me and said they’ll keeping me in their thoughts and prayers. That’s the best way I’m getting through it.”
You can donate money to help Tia Coleman and the other victims’ families through verified sites listed here.
The storm burst out of seemingly nowhere and submerged the boat slowly in the lake, drowning 17 of its 31 occupants, including all of Tia’s children and her husband – 9 of her relatives in all perished. However, there are also questions about the life jackets on the boat.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Family Members Tia Coleman Lost Range in Age From 1 to 76 & They Chose the Duck Boat Because They Thought Her Son, Who Was on the Autism Spectrum, Would Enjoy it
The photo above shows the Coleman family shortly before they boarded the boat for the fatal ride.
According to authorities, the deceased members of the family were named as Angela Coleman, 45; Arya Coleman, 1; Belinda Coleman, 69; Ervin Coleman, 76; Evan Coleman, 7; Glenn Coleman, 40; Horace Coleman, 70; Maxwell Coleman, 2 and Reece Coleman, 9.
In the news conference, Tia Coleman, who was sitting near the front of the boat when the tragedy occurred, said that her oldest child, son Reece, was on the autism spectrum. She also said that the family decided to go on the ducks because they felt Reece would enjoy it. It was the family’s first time in Branson.
“I want them to be remembered how they were,” Tia said of her family. “I lost nine people. I lost my husband… he was so loving…To remember my babies. My oldest son was Reece, who was on the autism spectrum, but he made every day worth living and knowing. He was the happiest and sweetest little boy anybody could want to meet.”
Her son Evan, 7, was “extremely smart, quick and witty and he loved life. He was a great brother. A big brother and a little brother.” Her baby Arya was “only 1 and she had a thousand personalities wrapped up into her 1. She would blow kisses. She would fight. She was a little fireball and my only girl.” She said her uncle Ray was “the oldest of the Colemans. He liked to laugh and have a good time. My father-in-law who had a heart of gold. He would give anything to anybody. My mother-in-law who was like a second mom…she was always there with a supportive word. My sister-in-law, who I call my sister…she was so loving, and she would do anything for her family. My nephew Max…the sweetest baby ever. He loved big hugs and warm kisses.”
Tia showed amazing composure and grace under the strain of awful tragedy. She said the sky wasn’t cloudy when the boat first entered the water.
You can watch the full news conference here:
She added: “Going home I already know is going to be completely difficult. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Since I’ve had a home it’s always been filled. It’s always been filled with little feet and laughter. And my husband, I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I just know that I’ll continue to need the support of my family, my friends and even my extended family and friends who I haven’t met. I’ll need that.”
Tia said the family was staying in a hotel and the “kids always liked to swim” so they all went down to the water and had a good time in the pool.
She went in the hot tub and remembered “all these little bodies coming in there with me.”
“They always loved to be around family. We ended up going out to eat while we were here.”
They went to the Golden Corral. She told the kids, “You’re on vacation so you can have whatever you want….They had cotton candy and rainbow sherbet.”
She added, “I enjoyed us being together and laughing at each other’s stories.”
She said they picked the duck boats because her son is autistic and so they don’t always do everything other families do. “They would make the situation fit for him. We have to do stuff where he can…be entertained…we thought that would work out for everybody… and it would be a good time. We had planned to go out to eat afterwards. On our family trips, we always tried to cater to the kids.” She said it was the family’s first time coming to Branson. The family had traveled to different places together.
People from around the country expressed admiration for the graceful way Tia is handling such enormous grief.
2. Tia Coleman Says Her ‘Heart Is Very Heavy’ & She Thought She Was Going to Die But Then She ‘Let Go’
Tia also described in great detail what happened on the boat. “I thought I hit the ceiling and I thought I was dead…when I went up, I didn’t know if I was in the ceiling, something kept pushing me and I kept floating up, and I don’t know if I was coming through a window… I have no idea,” Tia said. She gave this gut-wrenching detail:
I’ve always loved water. I don’t know if it’s a Pisces or what. I always loved water. But when that water came over the boat, I didn’t know what happened. I had my son right next to me. But when the water filled up the boat, I could no longer see. I couldn’t feel anybody. I couldn’t see. I just remember, I got to get out, I got to get out. I don’t know if somebody pushed me or what happened. But I hit my head on the part of the boat and when I got out into the water, it was ice cold. And I remember as we were going into the water, they said that the lake stays pretty warm, like in the 80s. So, I knew since it being so cold that I was close to the bottom, I’m not close to the top. I just remember kicking and swimming, swimming up to the top, and as I was swimming up, I was praying, saying Lord, please, let me get to my babies, I’ve got to get to my babies. I’ve got to get to my babies. I’ve got to get to my babies. And I was kicking. And the harder I fought to get to the top, I was getting cooled down. And I kept fighting and I kept fighting. And then I said, Lord if I can’t make it, there’s no use in keeping me here. I just let go, and I started floating and as I started floating, I felt the water temperature change, and it got warmer, and as it got warmer, I knew I was to the top, so I stuck my head out and I kept swallowing tons of water. The waves were crashing over my face. And every time I got my head a little bit above water, I’d scream help, help. Finally, I came up to the surface. I saw there was a great big boat out there, like a river boat. They were jumping in and saving people. They were throwing life rafts out to everybody. But I couldn’t reach it. I couldn’t get there in time. But somehow I managed to get to the boat. These beautiful people, angels, I don’t know who they were. They pulled me up. And when they pulled me up to the boat, I didn’t see anybody from my family. But I believe that I survived by God and Good Samaritans.
The emotional press conference was not the first interview that Tia has given since the tragedy unfolded. WXIN spoke to Tia Coleman, who was hospitalized. She described her emotions after such a grueling tragedy and also provided key information about what happened.
“My heart is very heavy. Out of 11 of us, only two of us surviving – that’s me and my nephew,” said Tia. “I lost all of my children. I lost my husband. I lost my mother-in-law and my father-in-law. I lost my uncle. I lost my sister-in-law … and I lost my nephew.”
She told OzarksFirst, “I couldn’t see anybody, I couldn’t hear anything. I couldn’t hear screams, it felt like I was out there on my own. And I was yelling, screaming, and finally, I said Lord, just let me die, let me die, I can’t keep drowning, I just can’t keep drowning. And then I just let go.”
But she survived, explaining to the news site, “And I started floating. I was floating up to the top, I felt the water temperature raise to warm, and as I felt the water temperature raise I jumped up and I saw the big boat that sits out there.”
Coleman’s Facebook page says she studied at Indiana University (Bloomington), went to Arsenal Technical High School and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Robert “Bob” Williams was the first victim identified in the “Ride the Ducks” tragedy. According to CNN, Williams was the driver of the boat. He was 73-years-old. Other victims include a couple celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary; a church deacon from Arkansas and his teenage son; a grandmother credited with saving her granddaughter’s life; and a man and woman who traveled to Branson from St. Louis.
You can read about all of the victims’ lives here:
3. Tia Coleman Says the Family Was Told They Would Not Need Life Jackets
Coleman has also provided a crucial claim about whether the tragedy could have been prevented; it deals with the life jackets on the boat. “The captain did say something about life jackets. He said, above you are your life jackets. There are three sizes. I’m going to show you where they are, but you won’t need them, so no need to worry. So we didn’t grab them,” Tia said.
She said she never wanted to go another boat in her whole life.
Tia Coleman also told WXIN-TV, “The only thing that I would like to be done but can’t, is to bring my family back,” and she alleged that the duck’s captain told the passengers, “don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets – you won’t need them,” so her family members didn’t take them.
Missouri law requires life jackets on duck boats but doesn’t require passengers to actually wear them. “If I was able to get a life jacket, I could have saved my babies… and I wasn’t able to do that,” Tia said.
Rescuers and divers called off the search around midnight the night of the tragedy, with five people still missing, and children among the dead. However, the bodies of two of the missing were then found. Authorities then changed the missing count and said four people remained missing. They later said that all people were now accounted for. Of those in the hospital, at least three were under age 18.
The sheriff said in a news conference that the victims perished from drowning. Seven other people were taken to the hospital. The boat carried 29 tourists and 2 crew members.
The NTSB is investigating.
The owner, Jim Patterson, told CNN the waters were calm when the duck went out, and the storm hit as it came back. “We’re absolutely devastated,” he said.
The company posted a statement on its website that read: “We are deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride The Ducks Branson. This incident has deeply affected all of us. Words cannot convey how profoundly our hearts are breaking. We will continue to do all we can to assist the families who were involved and the authorities as they continue with the search and rescue. The safety of our guests and employees is our number one priority. Ride the Ducks will be closed for business while we support the investigation, and to allow time to grieve for the families and the community. Thank you for your support, and we ask that your thoughts and prayers be with the families during this time.”
4. The Nine Family Members Had Ties to an Apostolic Church in Indianapolis & Were Originally Going to Take a Different Boat
The family was from Indianapolis, Indiana. “Pastor confirms that nine people involved in the #Missouri #duckboat accident had connections to Zion Tabernacle Apostolic Faith Church in Indianapolis. We’ve also learned seven of them have died, including several children,” reported Trevor Shirley of Fox 59 on Twitter.
“I’ve been raised what I call the right way,” said Tia in the press conference. “I’ve been raised in an apostolic church my whole life. I also have a ton of family praying for me and being behind me. As soon as they found out, they left in the middle of the night to come down. My pastor came down… “
According to UK Daily Mail, a fellow passenger said the family was only on the duck because they had “gone to the wrong pick-up area.”
Tracy Beck, of Kansas City, says a ticket taker “realized the Colemans should have boarded at a different location in Branson. The Colemans had to get new tickets and (were) put on the boat that eventually sank,” Daily Mail reported.
The boat is a major tourist attraction in Branson.
The website for Ride the Ducks reads, “Ride through the scenic Ozarks on our amphibian Duck that goes right from land into the river. Climb to the top of the Mountain, discover the history behind some of America’s unique military vehicles then cruise Table Rock Lake. Quack along with the captain and the music aboard this 70-minute Ozark adventure.”
According to CNN, Ripley Entertainment, “the parent company of Ride the Ducks Branson, said it recently acquired the vessel involved in the incident.” Winds gusted up to 63 miles per hour, CNN reported.
5. The Coleman Family Filled Their Facebook Pages With Love for Each Other
The Facebook pages of the many members of the Coleman family show them as a family devoted to each other. Their pages are filled with family pictures.
Belinda Coleman, identified as one of the adult victims, first shared the widely circulated family photo on Facebook in 2017 as her profile picture. “Great looking family,” wrote one man in the comment thread. “We come from good stock cuz,” Belinda wrote. Belinda shared the photo again on New Year’s and then on Christmas.
She wrote on Facebook that she had studied at George Washington Community High School, went to George Washington Community High School, and lived in Indianapolis.
Butch Coleman wrote on Facebook that he was a former truck driver at UPS who was from Kentucky but lived in Indianapolis. He was described by people on social media as a “community legend” and family patriarch who volunteered in the community for 40 years.
“My boys,” wrote Belinda Coleman on a family photo posted by Glenn Coleman on Facebook.
Angela Coleman wrote on Facebook that she was an independent consultant and designer who managed an elegant food restaurant.