Tall for her age at 5-foot-6 and experienced in boating, the Illinois girl reached up to an overhead shelf where the duck boat stored its jackets. She tugged again and again, but it wouldn’t give, said Alicia’s mother, Shaunna Cumberworth.
The water from Table Rock Lake in Branson, Mo., continued to rise and people’s heads bobbed above the water as it lifted them to the boat’s canopy. The windows trapped them inside, Cumberworth said.
When the top finally gave out, giving passengers the chance to escape, Alicia told her mother she felt the hands of her 64-year-old grandmother push her from below in the cold, deep water. Her grandmother’s final effort propelled Alicia upward, Cumberworth said. With that push, Leslie Dennison helped save her only granddaughter, but she didn’t survive. Dennison was among the 17 people killed when the tourist boat sank Thursday afternoon in a storm.
“She said if it wasn’t for her grandma, she wouldn’t have made it,” Cumberworth said. “She thanks her grandma for sacrificing.
“You have so much going through your head and you think about the what-ifs. … I have no words for what she did for my daughter.”
None of the 29 passengers or two crew members on board was wearing a life jacket, according to an incident report released Saturday by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The Associated Press reported that state and federal investigators were trying to determine what caused the vessel, originally built for military use in World War II, to sink. An initial assessment blamed thunderstorms and winds that approached hurricane strength, but it wasn’t clear why the amphibious vehicle even ventured into the water because the weather was forecast hours before the boat left shore.
Fourteen people survived. Others killed in the incident included nine from one family; two Missouri couples; an Arkansas father and son; and a retired pastor who operated the boat, AP reported.
A funeral has not yet been scheduled for Dennison, who was an almost 40-year employee of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and was known for her “amazing personality.” She enjoyed spending time at home and with Alicia and her brother.
Alicia and her grandmother traveled to Missouri from her grandmother’s home in Sherrard, Ill., earlier that day. It was Alicia’s first time visiting Missouri, Cumberworth said. The two planned to have “a special trip together” filled with shopping, dining and attending shows. They were close, and Alicia saw her every week when she stayed at her grandmother and father’s house on the weekends.
The Ride the Ducks boat tour was the first activity of the trip. Cumberworth said her daughter loved being on boats. Over the past several years, she would go out on the water with her father during summer break. Her favorite activity was riding on a tube pulled by a boat, and she was familiar with boat safety, Cumberworth said.
On the duck boat, Alicia and her grandmother sat toward the back, but the girl said it was hard to hear instructions coming from the front when they boarded.
Other survivors said the crew showed passengers where the life jackets were but said they wouldn’t need them, AP reported.
“If she was able to get a life vest for her and her grandma, she might have been able to survive,” Cumberworth said. “They should’ve never been on the water in the first place knowing the storm was coming. … You should know that. My daughter knows that.”
After Alicia was pulled from the water, a woman who worked on a showboat on the river stayed with her and let her use her phone. Cumberworth, after receiving the hysterical call from her daughter, said she hopped in the car and drove seven hours from their home in Milan, Ill., to Branson.
Though Alicia is physically OK with only some scratches and a badly bitten tongue, Cumberworth said she’s worried about the trauma her daughter experienced. After she was rescued, she saw the bodies of the dead passengers floating around her.
The following morning, Alicia was able to give a smile full of braces as she held a small therapy dog in her room at Cox Medical Center Branson. But she doesn’t want to get in the pool, let alone the open water, Cumberworth said.
Her mother said that she’s been babying her daughter since they brought her home, happy that she’s alive. Cumberworth said she tried to make jokes to lighten their moods by asking Alicia if she’s afraid to take a shower (she said no), but they have an appointment scheduled so she can speak to a professional.
“Her grandma wanted to do something special for her, and it turned into a tragedy,” Cumberworth said. “I don’t want her to hold this in because this is going to be with her for the rest of her life.”
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