Tia Coleman — one of the people aboard the duck boat tour that capsized in Missouri, killing 17 victims including nine members of her family — claims the vessel’s captain told passengers not to worry about using life jackets as the boat was rocking in the rough waters of Table Rock Lake.
FOX59 spoke on the phone with Tia from the hospital on Friday as she continued to recover from pneumonia and other injuries related to the tragic accident.
“The captain had told us, ‘Don’t worry about grabbing the life jackets, you won’t need them,’ ” Tia recalled of his alleged message, which she said came as they were already in the water. “So nobody grabbed them because we listened to the captain as he told us the safety [rules].”
“However, in doing that, when it was time to grab them, it was too late,” Tia told the outlet. “I believe that a lot of people could have been spared.”
Ripley’s Entertainment, which owns and operates the Ride the Ducks tour, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment about Tia’s claims.
Thursday’s accident took the lives of nine members of Tia’s family, including her husband, Glenn Coleman, 40, and her three children: Reece Coleman, 9, and Evan Coleman, 7, and Arya Coleman, 1.
Out of the entire family on the duck boat, only Tia and her 13-year-old nephew survived. His mother, Angela Coleman, 45, and brother, Maxwell Coleman, 2, also died.
Tia’s other family members included Belinda Coleman, 69, Ervin Coleman, 76, and Horace Coleman, 70.
“My heart is very heavy,” she told FOX59. “Out of 11 of us, only two of us surviving… I lost all 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. I’m okay but this is really hard. This is really hard.”
“There’s not much that can be done,” she told the news station. “The only thing that I would like to be done that can’t be is to bring my family back. Keep praying for me. … We’ve lost so much.”
Tia was visiting from Indiana, and took the tour alongside 30 other passengers. According to Stone County Sheriff Doug Rader, the boat turned over and sunk due to the stormy weather at about 8 p.m. ET, with the thunderstorm winds as high as 60 mph, NBC News reported. The duck boat remains at the bottom of the lake.
A severe thunderstorm warning had allegedly been issued for Branson at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
“There was a warning,” Tia told FOX59 of the weather, claiming that “the warning people said, ‘Take them out to the water first before the storm hits.’ “
“Since I don’t know the route, I’m not sure if we went to the water first or if we went to the town first,” she said. “It took awhile to get to the water. So I’m just unsure.”
She added that she felt motion the entire time, simply because they were on a boat. “The water didn’t look ominous at first, it looked like normal water,” she told the outlet. “And then it started looking very choppy.”
In a tearful video interview from her hospital bed obtained by multiple outlets, including WSYX6 and KOLR10, Coleman said the captain never told them to use the life vests.
“They told us they’re up here, this is where they are — they showed us where they were,” she said. “But ‘Don’t worry about it, you won’t need it.’ And we said, ‘Okay.’ “
“So when the captain took over, I thought that at some point he would say grab the jackets now. But we were told to stay seated, and everybody stayed seated,” Tia shared. “Nobody grabbed it.”
She added: “When that boat is found, all those life jackets are going to be in there. Nobody pulled one off. You weren’t supposed to grab them unless you were in distress, which we were, but he told us we don’t need them. It was, I don’t know what to say, definitely… [a] life-altering event.”
Tia didn’t know the boat was sinking until it was too late.
“Once [the caption] takes over, this big huge wave’s choppy, everybody started getting like, ‘Hey, this is getting a little bit too much,” Tia said in the video. “And then it got really choppy and big swells of water started coming in to the boat. Then a really huge wave swept over, and when that wave swept over, the last thing I heard my sister-in-law say was ‘Grab the baby.’ “
Escaping the sinking boat was a nightmare, she explained.
“My head pushed up to the top of the water and I lost control, I didn’t have anybody with me,” Tia said. “I couldn’t see anybody. And I know it wasn’t but I felt like I struggled for at least an hour, but it was probably like 10 minutes. And I just remembered I kept sinking, I kept sinking.”
“I couldn’t see anybody, I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t hear screams” Tia continued. “It felt like I was out there on my own. I was yelling and I was screaming. And finally I said, ‘Lord, just let me die. I can’t keep drowning.’ That’s how I felt.”
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Letting go, Tia said she “started floating to the top” and “felt the water temperature raise to warm.”
First responders were waiting in a boat, trying to help survivors.
“They were throwing out life jackets to people,” Tia said. “And I said, ‘Jesus keep me, just keep me so I can get to my children.’ “