Elizabeth Goldenberg and four others were involved in an airboat accident in the Everglades on May 13. Goldenberg, 22, was killed and her sister, Dana, was hospitalized with minor injuries. Her parents, David and Renee Goldenberg, and the airboat operator, Steve George Gagne of Miami, were unharmed.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the accident took place in the Wildlife Management Area, a few miles west of Krome Avenue. Goldenberg, who had graduated from the University of Miami the previous day, was on an airboat excursion with her family when the vessel “stopped abruptly” after being forced off the trail because a damaged airboat was blocking the way.
The sudden stop caused the airboat to flip and throw its passengers into the water. Goldenberg was reportedly hurled off the boat and pinned under its engine cage in the water. She died from her injuries at Kendall Regional Medical Center.
Following Goldenberg’s death, Florida Rep. Joseph Abruzzo said he’ll see if tougher regulations are needed for airboat operators. There is very little regulation in the world of commercial airboat excursions because deaths are such a rarity, but an airboat tour can be dangerous. In 2015, two airboats collided and injured 21 people. And last year, a man from Naples severed part of his arm in an accident in the Everglades.
Currently, Florida law only requires operators to complete a boating safety course and obtain a Boating Safety Education Identification Card from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The card is used as proof that an operator has completed the education requirements. They don’t need to get an official “boating license” similar to licenses required to drive a car, and airboats aren’t required to be registered.
Some operators say there is too little regulation. Lyle Thomas, the owner of Loxahatchee Everglades Tours, told the press that he is concerned some operators don’t know how to properly run their vessels.
“If you go out of a 50-foot boat and everyone stands on one side, it’s going to be dangerous. There are people who go too fast and there’s not enough law enforcement to catch them,” Thomas told Sun Sentinel. “Anybody can buy a boat and you don’t need a driver’s license.”
Thomas believes the crash that killed Goldenberg was a “freak accident.”
“Airboats don’t stop abruptly. There’s no brake on an airboat to stop abruptly,” he said. “He had to hit something to make it stop—and passengers would continue to move at the speed he was traveling at the time. That’s why cars have seat belts.”
Many tour companies that offer airboat excursions in the Everglades operate as a virtual business. The company Goldenberg and her family used, River of Grass Adventures, is one of those independent companies whose storefront is a website where customers can fill out reservations and make payments. It is reportedly run from some benches outside a gas station on Krome Avenue.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is still investigating the accident. Rob Klepper, the wildlife commission’s spokesperson, declined to provide additional details about the case and could not say whether or not the investigation will result in any charges.
Goldenberg’s funeral was held on Tuesday near her hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.