Eleven members of the vacationing Coleman family piled into a duck boat at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Missouri, on Thursday. The kids were excited, the adults happy — all of them enjoying their annual summer road trip, which this year had brought them seven hours from their home in Indianapolis to southern Missouri.
But the Colemans’ adventure would end in unfathomable tragedy. Only two family members survived after the amphibious vehicle sank in a sudden squall, an accident in which a total of 17 people who had been on board died.
On Saturday, 34-year-old Tia Coleman, who lost her three young children and husband in the tragedy, as well as her father-in-law, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, nephew and uncle, recalled the moments just before the boat’s sinking and the desperate thoughts that flooded her mind as she struggled to survive.
“I thought I was dead,” she said, speaking to reporters at Cox Medical Center Branson, where she’s been recovering from her injuries. “I didn’t know how to get out.”
Coleman, whose 13-year-old nephew, Donovan, also survived the accident, said there had been little sign of danger before the massive swell overcame the vessel. One of the employees of the boat company had even pointed out the life jackets on board, she recalled, but said there would be no need for them.
“If I was able to get a life jacket, I could have saved my babies,” said the distraught Coleman, who had been sitting next to one of her children. “Because they could have at least floated up to the top and somebody could have grabbed them. And I wasn’t able to do that.”
Coleman said she believes it was “God and good Samaritans” who’d helped her survive.
“I remember kicking and swimming up to the top. And as I was swimming up, I was praying, ‘Lord, please let me get to my babies. I gotta get to my babies, I gotta get to my babies,’” she said. “[But] the harder I fought to get up to the top, I was getting pulled down.”
Coleman said she stopped kicking at some point and “just let go.”
“I started floating,” she said, adding that she eventually floated to the surface where she saw a big riverboat docked nearby.
Passengers on the boat were jumping into the water to help people in distress and were throwing life rafts down, said Coleman.
“When they pulled me up from the boat, I didn’t see any of my family,” she said.
Coleman’s husband, Glenn, 40, and the couple’s children, Reece, 9; Evan, 7; and Arya, 1, perished. The other Colemans who died were Belinda, 69; Ervin, 76; Horace, 70; Angela, 45, and her 2-year-old son, Maxwell.
When asked by reporters on Saturday what it’ll be like to return home to Indianapolis, Coleman said she knows it will be “completely, completely difficult.”
“Since I’ve had a home, it’s always been filled with little feet and laughter, and my husband. I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she said.
Coleman urged people to remember her late family members “as the beautiful people they were.” Of her immediate family, she said Glenn Coleman was a “loving” husband, while Reese was the “happiest, sweetest little boy” who was autistic and “made every day worth living.” Evan loved life and was “extremely smart, quick and witty,” and baby Arya was a “little fireball” who loved to blow kisses.
Of her other relatives, she said Horace liked to laugh and have a good time, Ervin had a “heart of gold,” and Belinda was “always there with a supportive word.” Angela was “so loving” and Max, the 2-year-old, was the “sweetest baby ever.”
“He loved big hugs and warm kisses,” said Coleman through tears.