Woman’s death spurs Florida lawmakers to consider tighter airboat regulations

Author: CBS News
CBS News

In South Florida, the death of a 22-year-old honor student is prompting Florida state lawmakers to take a closer look at the largely unregulated airboat industry. They are considering legislation to tighten regulations for the popular tourist activity after Ellie Goldenberg died in an airboat crash last year.

A lawmaker backing the Florida House bill says there have been seven airboat-related deaths and 102 serious injuries in the last three years.

The engines on many airboats are similar to those powering race cars; they can get the boat moving up to 50 miles per hour. Captains at some companies are certified by the Coast Guard, but at others, drivers aren’t required to have any type of training or certification, reports CBS News’ Manuel Bojorquez.

Last May, David and Renee Goldenberg’s daughter Ellie, an aspiring Broadway singer, graduated from the University of Miami. A day after graduation, the family signed up for an airboat tour that turned tragic.

“We decided to go out on a celebratory airboat tour in the Everglades,” David said. “A short while into the tour the driver sped up to overtake another airboat that was either stuck or had stopped…. And he flipped our airboat.”

The couple’s daughter Dana was thrown under the boat and burned. She survived, but Ellie became trapped facedown and drowned.

“The grated part of the boat that covers the engine fell on top of her and pinned her down. So I watched her take her last breath,” Renee said. “It happened so fast, it was just unbelievable. I think we never imagined to be in that position.”

According to the company that gave the tour, the airboat captain had given more than 10,000 rides and was CPR trained. CPR training along with taking a safety course approved by the state are two provisions of a new safety bill that Florida state representative Joe Abruzzo is co-sponsoring.

“We’re talking about being out in the middle of the Everglades,” Abruzzo said. “You’re far away from any type of first responders to get there immediately and you need somebody trained to treat these injuries.”

“You have some unique challenges with an airboat. There are no brakes, there’s no reverse,” said Sam Haught, co-owner of Wild Florida, which gives airboat rides to 350 people per day.

“People don’t hear the specific airboat company got in an accident, they just hear airboats. And so it really puts kind of a black cloud over people’s desire to come out,” Haught said.

The proposed legislation is named Ellie’s Law. But David Goldenberg doesn’t want it to define his daughter’s legacy.

“It’s an unfortunate byproduct that we are putting in place to try and make sure that no other family has to lose a loved one,” David said. “If you’ve ever heard her sing, some of that smile — that’s her legacy.”

The proposed law would impact commercial airboat captains and not those who take them out recreationally. The company involved in Ellie Goldenberg’s death told CBS News it supports the bill, which is still making its way through the Florida legislature.

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