Tia Coleman’s thoughts as she struggled to swim to the surface of the lake were focused on her family.
She and 10 of her relatives were on a family vacation from Indiana, taking a tour Thursday of Table Rock Lake near the Missouri tourist hotspot of Branson.
A treacherous squall sank the boat, sending Coleman down into cold, deep water.
She knew she had to go up to get to safety and to help her children.
“I said, ‘Lord, please, I’ve got to get to my babies. I’ve got to get to my babies,” she said Saturday at a news conference at Cox Medical Center Branson, where she has been hospitalized since the incident that took 17 lives, including her husband, three children and five other members of her family.
Coleman wept at times as she described trying to help her family and save herself. At other times she proudly talked about her kin, describing her memories of them.
Her children have always loved to swim, Coleman said. They had taken vacations to other lakes and to beaches.
“In our family, my oldest son is autistic so a lot of things normal families do, we don’t always do,” she said.
They went on the duck boat because her eldest could be himself on the boat, she said.
Passengers were told there was a storm coming before they went out on the water, Coleman said. The captain mentioned life jackets before they went onto the lake, she added, but he said, “you won’t need them so we didn’t grab them.”
Coleman said she thinks if she had been able to get a life jacket to her children – she had a son sitting next to her – she could have saved them.
“I felt like, if I was able to get a life jacket I could have saved my babies 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,” she said.
Coleman told reporters that she hit her head as she tried to exit the boat, possibly butting up against the canopy.
“The harder I was kicking to the top, I was pulled down,” she said.
As she lost hope of surviving, Coleman just let go and started floating. She felt warmer water closer to the surface and reached out her hand.
When her head emerged from the lake, she looked around and saw a big riverboat docked nearby, but she didn’t see anyone from her family.
All of them but a nephew had perished.
Coleman felt hands reaching down for her and then she realized she was being pulled out of the water.
When asked whether she is happy she made it out alive, Coleman said she doesn’t know yet and only time will tell. But she thinks there is a reason she survived.
“God must have something for me because there’s no way I should be here,” she said.