On Friday, University of Miami theater student Elizabeth “Ellie” Goldenberg — a promising thespian who graduated at the top of her class —earned her musical theater degree.
A day later the 22-year-old was dead — the victim of an airboat crash that also ejected three family members in town celebrating her graduation.
The likely driver of the airboat, Steven George Gagne, 52, was tossed overboard as well, though he wasn’t injured, said a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. FWCC didn’t name Gagne as the operator, but according to the state agency, he was the only person on the boat who is not a family member. The FWCC released no other information on Gagne.
Goldenberg’s sister Dana Goldenberg, 20, was taken to Kendall Regional Medical Center with minor injuries. Their parents, Renee Flaxx-Goldenberg and David Goldenberg, both 54, were also along for the ride, but not injured. In its one-paragraph release on the accident, the FWCC did not say what company operated the airboat or what caused the accident.
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“It was a tragedy,” FWCC spokesman Robert Klepper said. “It’s still under investigation.”
Elizabeth Goldenberg’s promising acting career was cut short just as she graduated summa cum laude from UM where she received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
She recently earned a Friends of Theatre Award, one of the highest honors given by the school’s theater department. The award recognizes talent and “unlimited potential” in acting.
According to the FWCC, the crash happened at 11:45 a.m. Saturday about 12 miles west of Krome Avenue in the Everglades Wildlife Management Area. Elizabeth Goldenberg died after being ejected from the airboat, Klepper said.
The Goldenberg family was in town from Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. Saturday was a busy day for the FWCC, which also dealt with three other boating accidents in Miami-Dade.
The Israel-born student “was absolutely beloved by her faculty, fellow students and her many UM friends,” Patricia Whitely, vice president for student affairs at UM, said in a statement.
Students from UM’s theater department posted tributes to Goldenberg on social media.
Goldenberg was featured in numerous Jerry Herman Ring Theatre productions on campus. She starred in “Spring Awakening,” “Of Thee I Sing,” “The Adding Machine” and Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
In a student profile on the school’s College of Arts & Science’s page, Goldenberg, a vice president of Theatre Action Group, said that performing alongside Broadway actor Jeff Kready in Tom Jones’ “The Game of Love,” was a highlight of her career on the stage.
Goldenberg spent a year abroad in Israel after high school. According to UM, her deep connection to her Jewish heritage carried over to the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre. Often, her family would send Israeli treats to congratulate her on opening night.
She was involved in Emet Israel and UChabad, two Jewish student organizations at UM. “My heritage is very important to me and I love connecting with other students who feel the same way,” she said in her profile.
Her theater colleagues recalled how she was the first to arrive at the theater on performance days.
“I will always remember her big hair, her big voice, and most of all her big heart. She was not only my mentor, she was my best friend. She held me to a high standard and saw what I could achieve even when I couldn’t. I am grateful every day for the time we had together,” her “Spring Awakening” co-star Branden Holzer told The Miami Hurricane, the student newspaper.
On Goldenberg’s profile, the popular graduate had a message for her fellow thespians: “Take disappointments or failures with a grain of salt. It may seem like the most critical or devastating thing at the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s only a blip. Learn from it and move on.”
Goldenberg’s survivors include her parents, David and Renee, her sister Dana and brother Michael. The family planned to have a private memorial service at the Ring Theatre on Monday afternoon and will follow with a funeral Tuesday at Kesher Israel Synagogue in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The family asks that those who wish to help can fund planting a tree in Israel in Goldenberg’s name through Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, Jewish National Fund, or make a donation to the Ellie Goldenberg Memorial Scholarship Fund: Department of Theatre Arts, University of Miami, P.O. Box 248273, Coral Gables, FL 33124.