Tia Coleman has always loved water.
She and 11 members of her family made plenty of memories playing in the pool at their Branson, Missouri, hotel while on vacation from Indiana. But when water came rushing into their boat Thursday during a ride on Table Rock Lake, Coleman didn't know what to do.
She couldn't see. Water rushed in, and soon she couldn't even feel her son who had been sitting next to her on the duck boat, an amphibious vessel that can travel on road and water.
Coleman, who lost nine family members in the ship's capsizing, shared her story of survival Saturday afternoon at a news conference at the hospital where she's being treated.
"I thought I was dead," she said, recounting the moment she was sucked under. "I didn't know how to get out."
Coleman, sitting in a wheelchair and flanked by loved ones, said she didn't see a cloud in the sky when she boarded the Ride the Ducks boat with her family. Crew members told them a storm was heading toward them but there didn't appear to be any danger.
Crew members told them about the life jackets, stored above their seats in three different sizes. "But don't worry," Coleman said they told the guests, "You won't need them."
Even as the swells grew, she and her family didn't feel fear, and the crew, she says, never told them to put on the life jackets. It wasn't until water started making its way into the vessel that Coleman realized the danger they were in.
As the water poured in, Coleman lost sight of her family and hit her head.
"I just remember, 'I got to get out. I got to get out,' " she said, adding she wasn't sure how she made it out of the vessel. "I just remember kicking and swimming."
She fought to get to the surface but said she kept getting dragged back down. Soon she started praying: “I said Lord, please, let me get to my babies. I gotta get to my babies."
She said that after a while she felt there was nothing left to do but give up the fight and let go, allowing God take her, but that allowed her to float to the surface.
Waves crashed over her face, but in between swallowing water she was able to scream out "Help!" while waving her hands.
Passengers from a nearby boat, who Coleman called "angels," threw her life preservers and jumped in the water to help her and others.
"When they pulled me up in the boat, I didn’t see any of my family," she said. "But I believe I survived by God."
In total, she lost her husband, three children, her uncle, nephew, mother-in-law, father-in-law and sister-in-law. She described her love for each of them and described how tough her new journey would be. Coleman said her home was always filled with people and now her three children and husband were stolen from her.
"I don’t know how I’m going to do it," she said.
When the totality of the situation hit her, she told God, “If they don’t make it, Lord take me, too, there's no reason for me to be here.”
A GoFundMe account named "Only Official Duck Boat Survivors" was set up to support the Coleman family. "The funds will go directly to Tia (Coleman)," said Katherine Cichy, a spokeswoman for GoFundMe, in an email. More information is available at gofundme.com/branson-duck-boat-survivor.