Miami-Dade County

UM student’s tragic death seen as a ‘freak thing’ in the world of airboating

Though deadly accidents on airboats do occur, they’re almost unheard of in the commercial airboat industry that runs along the side of the Tamiami Trail east and west across the state.
Though deadly accidents on airboats do occur, they’re almost unheard of in the commercial airboat industry that runs along the side of the Tamiami Trail east and west across the state. Miami Herald File / 2013

Elizabeth “Ellie” Goldenberg was killed when the airboat she was on “stopped abruptly” after being forced off the trail because a broken-down airboat was blocking the way.

The stop was so sudden, the boat flipped. Goldenberg, 22, was thrown and pinned under its engine cage in shallow water, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission believes. She drowned. Her sister was injured, but not severely. Her parents and the boat’s operator escaped injury.

The deadly Saturday morning accident, about 12 miles west of Krome Avenue in state waters just north of Tamiami Trail, was a rarity in the mostly unregulated world of commercial airboat excursions. The boats, which vary in size and can carry 35 people or more at a time, usually travel at slow speeds in shallow water.

The Goldenbergs went on an airboat excursion with River of Grass Adventures to celebrate their daughter’s Friday graduation from the University of Miami. Ellie Goldenberg, a top-notch honors student in her acting class, was popular with the school’s Ring Theater crowd and active in a campus Jewish organization.

On Tuesday, she was buried near her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth “Ellie” Goldenberg starred in numerous productions at the University of Miami’s Jerry Herman Ring Theatre, including “Spring Awakening” and “As You Like It.” She graduated May 12 with a degree in musical theater and was the recipient of the Friends of Theatre Award, one of the highest honors bestowed by the school’s Department of Theatre Arts. She was killed in an airboat crash on May 13, 2017. The Miami Hurricane Courtesy Jerry Herman Ring Theatre

Deadly airboat accidents happen. But rarely, if ever, in the mostly unregulated commercial industry that lines the banks of the Tamiami Canal from just west of Krome Avenue almost to Naples.

The most high-profile recent incident involving commercial airboaters was at Gator Park, an airboat company that’s been around for almost 30 years. In 2015, two boats collided and 21 people were taken to the hospital, none with life-threatening injuries.

The industry is mainly broken down into three groupings: Larger more established companies like Coopertown Airboats that trek the national parkland south of the Tamiami Trail. Operators like Buffalo Tiger Airboats that operate on Miccosukee land north of the trail but 12 miles or more west of Krome.

And the mostly ghost-like independents, including River of Grass Adventures, many of which don’t even have storefronts and that operate in state waters north of Tamiami Trail.

Though Saturday’s airboat crash was a tragedy for family and friends of Goldenberg — many who gathered Monday afternoon at the Ring Theater on the UM campus to memorialize the young actor’s life — it also sent shockwaves through the tight-knit community of South Florida commercial airboat operators.

Most can’t even recall a deadly accident by a commerical airboat operator in South Florida waters. The industry’s safety record is likely one of the reasons why commercial airboating has remained so unregulated over the years.

Rob Klepper, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the state agency that oversees airboat operators north of the canal and which is investigating the accident, said airboat operators “abide by the laws any other boaters have to abide by.”

That means there are no special rules for airboating.

Though airboats are required to be registered like other vessels, operators aren’t required to take tests or undergo background checks. Often, insurance isn’t required. Many of the companies simply operate as virtual businesses — their storefronts are websites that ask potential customers to fill out reservations online and pay online.

When that’s completed, the customer is asked to meet the airboat operator at one of the dozens of small boat ramps that line the northern side of the canal that traverses the state from east to west.

The only requirements as far as Fish and Wildlife is concerned: a 10-foot high flagpole and a muffle to soften the sound of the motor.

“They abide by the laws any other boaters have to abide by,’ Klepper said.

River of Grass Adventures is run from a couple of benches outside of a Shell Gas Station at Dade Corners on Krome Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street. Above a bench is an advertisement for the company. On Tuesday and Wednesday, workers at the Shell station at a small bodega next to the benches said they hadn’t seen anyone from River of Grass, including owner Robert Price.

The bench at Dade Corners on Krome Avenue and Southwest Eighth Street where operators for River of Grass Adventures meet customers before airboat rides. Charles Rabin

Like most of the smaller operators who run boats in state waters north of the trail, the company’s website directs to a number that offers a recording. Reservations are made online and the customer then agrees to meet the airboat and its driver at the gas station bench or at one of the many boatramps that line the Tamiami Canal.

This time of year, with little rain and water levels so low, airboating can be daunting. Last year at this time, one of the bigger operators, Buffalo Tiger Airboats, which operates on Miccosukee land, was forced to close down for a few weeks.

Betty Osceola, who runs Buffalo Tiger in waters just west of where the accident happened, said a recent drought has her boat operators avoiding certain areas.

“You have to be familiar with the area. Some portions of rock are protruding. And the muddy part almost acts like a suction cup. It’ll grab your boat like glue,” Osceola said. “You have to be experienced and avoid those dangers.”

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been tight-lipped about Saturday’s accident. The state agency didn’t release documents until Tuesday, the same day it finally named Steve George Gagne, 56, as the driver of the airboat that flipped. The state agency said Gagne was steering a 15-foot by 10-foot two-year old McGinnis airboat that flipped.

Price, who spoke with the Sun Sentinel, wouldn’t go into detail about the accident and offered his condolences to the Goldenberg family.

“Our hearts and our thoughts go out to the Goldenberg family. From the bottom of our hearts in our household,” the Price told the Sun Sentinel.

Gagne could not be reached.

Though the state demands very little from the airboat operators, the larger companies say they go out of their way to regulate themselves. Osceola, for instance, said Miccosukee police oversee Buffalo Tiger’s operations instead of the state wildlife agency. The company’s boats undergo regular safety checks and insurance is required.

Coopertown Airboats is one the few lucky operators still permitted to run tours through Everglades National Park on the south side of the trail. That’s because it was grandfathered in during the signing of a historic Everglades restoration and land preservation act signed in 1989.

Though the company, which began operating in 1945 and has 15 boats, falls under the oversight of the Fish and Wildlife agency, operator Doyle Kennon makes his drivers take three weeks of training and study boating safety laws. His boats are also insured, Kennon said.

“We run designated routes,” Kennon said. The operators “run hundreds of thousands a people a year and I can’t recall any death.”

As for Gagne, the driver of the River of Grass airboat, he’s fairly well known in an airboat community where most boat operators have worked for several different companies over the years. On Tuesday, two men were discussing Saturday’s tragedy from a boat ramp about a half mile west of the Miccosukee gaming resort.

“Everybody’s in shock,” said a man who refused to give his name but said he operated an airboat. “Anytime something like this happens it affects everyone.”

Kennon, whose dad Jesse started Coopertown in 1945, called the accident “a freak thing.” He couldn’t recall a single death on any of the commercial vessels that operate off the trail. Most of the accidents, he said, happen to private owners not as familiar with the surroundings.

He said Gagne worked for him about a decade ago and that they parted ways amicably. On Tuesday, a couple of small groups were lining up for rides, some taking pictures before boarding. Kennon said the season slows considerably after spring break and graduation — a time when students, family and friends flood the Everglades.

“I can’t tell if [Saturday’s accident] affects business much because it’s slow this time of year anyway. Last weekend we were packed. Airboating is a big graduation thing,” Kennon said. “As for the accident, I have no clue what happened. There’s no way I can even begin to say. I wasn’t there. It’s all shallow water right now.”