When a duck boat capsized July 19 on Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, Tia Coleman's life changed forever.
The accident killed 17 of the 31 people on board the boat, which was operated by national duck tour company Ride the Ducks, including nine members of Coleman's Indianapolis-based family. The Colemans were touring the lake while on a family vacation when a storm blew across the lake, eventually causing the boat to sink.
Coleman and her 13-year-old nephew, Donovan, were the only members of the family to survive the accident, according to IndyStar. Coleman's husband and three children were among those killed.
Members of three generations of the Coleman family were killed in the accident, a family well-rooted in the Hoosier state. According to IndyStar, Coleman grew up as a member of the Zion Tabernacle Apostolic Faith Church in Indianapolis and, along with her immediate family, later became members of God's Love Christian Church, also in Indianapolis.
Coleman attended IU from fall 2002 to spring 2004, while also spending a pair of semesters in 2005 and 2007 attending IUPUI, according to Chuck Carney, IU director of media relations. She is a paralegal in the Marion County prosecutor's office in Indianapolis, according to IndyStar.
News of the accident quickly spread to a national audience, as Coleman spoke at a press conference just days later on July 21 from Cox Medical Center Branson, where she was receiving treatment.
"I don't know if there is a recovery from it," Coleman said. "The biggest thing is a lot of prayer. A lot of prayer, a lot of support. It's only the beginning so I don't know."
Coleman said her family decided on a duck boat ride during its vacation because it was a good activity for her 9-year-old son Reece, who was autistic and loved the water. While appearing on the Facebook Watch program "Anderson Cooper Full Circle," Coleman said her husband was found along with all three of her children.
"The reason I couldn't find them is because he was protecting them," Coleman said.
The accident, which is being investigated by state investigators and the National Transportation Safety Board, occurred after a severe thunderstorm created treacherous conditions on the lake.
Capt. Jim Pulley, owner of Sea Tow Table Rock Lake, told the Springfield News-Leader the storm had 80 mph winds, which created 5-foot-high waves. Per IndyStar, the duck boat is believed to have sunk in 40 feet of water, rolled down in the lake and then landed on its wheels in lake water which was 80 feet deep.
"The waves were crashing over my face," Coleman said. "Finally, I came up to the surface. I saw a great big boat, like a riverboat. Oh, my God, they were jumping in, saving people. They were throwing life rafts to everybody. Somehow I managed to get to the boat."
The weather service station in Springfield, Missouri, which is approximately 40 miles north of Branson, issued a severe thunderstorm watch on the day of the accident. This was followed by a severe thunderstorm warning for three counties, which included Table Rock Lake, about 40 minutes before the boat capsized.
Coleman said the passengers on the duck boat were shown where the life jackets were kept, but were told by the boat's captain they weren't necessary, and, as a result, no one wore a life jacket. She also said it wasn't cloudy when the boat went into the water, but passengers were told there was a storm coming before they went on the water.
The crew on the boat instructed passengers to sit two or three people to a seat, according to Coleman, who sat with her son Reece.
"When the last big wave came in, I lost a hold of my baby," Coleman said. "I didn't know the boat had capsized. I thought it just went under. I was so disoriented. I couldn't see anything, so I just started pushing with my hands, trying to find a way out."
According to a report by The Associated Press, commercial vessels like the tourist boat operated by Ride the Ducks are exempt from a Missouri state law requiring passengers under the age of seven to wear life jackets. Three of the victims of the accident were 7 years old or younger.
All three were members of the Coleman family.
"It's something I can't comprehend, I can't explain," Coleman said. "I don't have the capacity to understand it. The only thing is, God must have something for me because there's no way I should be here."
As of July 31, the official GoFundMe fundraiser to support Tia Coleman has raised more than $761,000.