The day before Ellie died, David Goldenberg was just another proud parent watching his child get her college degree.
The 22-year-old thespian had graduated with honors from the University of Miami’s musical theater program last May, prompting her parents and sister to travel from Pennsylvania to celebrate her milestone. But an Everglades airboat tour the family took the next day to laud her for her new diploma ended in disaster when the boat tipped and trapped Ellie under it.
She drowned, just a few weeks before her 23rd birthday.
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Goldenberg discovered soon after Ellie’s death that the industry that runs such commercial airboat tours is largely unregulated, without licenses for operators or specific safety courses.
“Anyone can do whatever the hell they want,” he said.
The grieving father is now pushing for action in Tallahassee that might prevent future tragedies, by setting new regulations on the commercial airboat operators who carry passengers through the Everglades and other wetlands. More than 75 accidents involving private and commercial airboats have occurred in the last three years in Florida, according to the Miami New Times, leading to at least seven deaths and 102 injuries.
The House version of what is being called Ellie’s Law, HB 1211, cleared a key subcommittee meeting Tuesday with a unanimous vote, and its Senate companion SB 1612, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, garnered similar support in a committee meeting last week. The Florida Airboat Association has indicated it supports the legislation, and legislators are cautiously optimistic.
“Ellie’s tragedy will save lives in the state of Florida,” said Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, who is sponsoring the House bill. Right now in certain state waters, “there are absolutely zero requirements to buy an airboat and put a sign in the ground saying they offer rides.”
The group that ran the Goldenbergs’ fatal 90-minute tour, River of Grass Adventures, would have had to clear few hurdles under existing Florida law. Airboat operators currently must have completed an eight-hour boating safety course, but there are no specific licenses and no background checks. The boats, which rely on powerful airplane-like engines to propel themselves over water, do need to be outfitted with an orange flag hoisted at least 10 feet high and a muffler for the engine’s sound. But to operate them, the boats only need to be registered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and often don’t require insurance.
But Goldenberg knew none of that when he decided to book a private tour through the Everglades’ famous swaths of sawgrass.
“They don’t even have you sign a danger waiver,” Goldenberg remembered. “Even the companies don’t consider it a dangerous endeavor.”
He and his family just wanted to celebrate Ellie, their wide-smiling and eager sister and daughter who, in addition to graduating with honors, had been given the school’s only theater award for her “unlimited potential.”
She was beloved by classmates, who called her “the mother hen” for her caring nature — even talking some friends down from stressful situations, he said.
The Saturday morning ride — with the operator, Goldenberg, his wife Renee, Ellie and her sister Dana — started innocuously. It turned to horror when the boat, while trying to pass a broken-down vessel in front of it, tipped over and threw everyone overboard.
“I was pinned with my head above water,” Goldenberg said. His wife was concussed by the impact and injured, he added, and his younger daughter Dana was burned by the engine when she was thrown below water but managed to extricate herself.
But Ellie remained trapped underwater by the boat and drowned.
“You can close your eyes and imagine what I was thinking,” Goldenberg said.
An incident report released last year found that the airboat operator, Steven George Gagne, then 52, had been under the influence of cannabis. The FWC, which oversees airboat operators in state waters, began a criminal investigation, which is still ongoing, according to agency spokesman Rob Klepper.
The Goldenbergs, gripped by grief, returned to Pennsylvania where, with Ellie’s brother Michael, they buried her in Harrisburg, near her home. But within weeks of his daughter’s death, Goldenberg and his wife realized how few regulations oversee airboat operators in the state.
“We were appalled,” he remembered.
Goldenberg began calling and emailing legislators in Florida, including Abruzzo, who happened to have attended Ellie’s graduation because a relative was in the same graduating class, and the Palm Beach County representative began planning a bill that would address the loopholes that had allowed Gagne to pilot the boat.
The legislation would require the FWC to establish standards for airboat operator courses and require those operators to be certified in CPR and first aid, subject to at least a $500 fine. An earlier version of the Senate bill made a violation of those regulations punishable as a more severe second-degree misdemeanor with imprisonment for up to 60 days, though it was amended down to a civil penalty.
Airboats should be operated “by someone who’s been tested, who’s been vetted, who is responsible and who knows how to deal with a dire situation,” Goldenberg said. “It seems in retrospect none of those things are done or are being done.”
Though the bill still has two committee stops in the Senate and two in the House, Goldenberg said he has continued to push for the legislation from Pennsylvania, where he teaches medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine and works as a surgeon.
The family members who attended Ellie’s graduation are coming back to Miami on Friday to award the first Ellie Goldenberg Memorial Scholarships to a few musical theater students in their daughter’s department. It’s the first time he and his wife are visiting Miami since his daughter’s death, and Goldenberg is scheduled to deliver a memorial lecture on voice disorders and singers, combining both his specialty in otolarynology and his daughter’s major.
People have planted about a thousand trees in Israel, where Ellie was born and spent time after high school, to honor her memory through Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish National Fund, Goldenberg said.
Passing Ellie’s Law, he hopes, will be another way to honor her memory.
“When someone you love dies, you try and make sense of it, though there is no sense,” he said. Ellie’s Law is their effort to “prevent some other parent from having to endure what we did, some other child from having to go through what she did.”
“We will push this until the bill gets through,” he said. “It has to get through.”