Florida Airboat Accidents Have Killed Seven and Injured Dozens in Recent Years

John Tigertail and his family have operated airboats since the 1940s.
John Tigertail and his family have operated airboats since the 1940s. Photos by Isabella Vi Gomes

Deep in the Everglades, just off the Tamiami Trail, a seven-foot-wide propeller perched on an airboat violently slaps the wind. To drown out the deafening sound, Anastacia Dorst cups her hands tightly over her ears. Still, the narrow path of rippling water ahead feels more airport tarmac than wetland.

The doe-eyed 30-year-old brunette turns to her girlfriends and flashes a smile. Thank God we spotted that brochure back at the Fontainebleau, she thinks. A last-second airboat tour of the Everglades is the perfect end to our girls' Labor Day weekend getaway.

The 26-foot aluminum vessel sets off. Within minutes, it's skating down a creek banked by razor-edged sawgrass, spatterdock water lilies, and copper-red dragonflies. Though the wet breeze slams against her eyelids, the mother of three from San Francisco sighs contentedly.

Six rows back, sitting on a towering chair near the boat's stern, is 23-year-old Ashley Teggart, a tour guide recently hired by Gator Park, a 26-year-old airboat tour company that ferries half a million visitors around the Glades annually. As the boat putters along no faster than a couple miles per hour, the sporty, blue-eyed blond from Miami warns her 26 passengers: "Hands inside the boat at all times. Watch out for baby gators." A few chuckle in reply.

The boat enters a stretch of open water. Sensing there are no other vessels nearby, Teggart steps on the accelerator and rams the rudder stick forward. Immediately, the boat hydroplanes. With an angry groan, the flat-bottomed hull tilts onto its side.

Dorst feels her chest tighten, but Teggart remains unfazed. She shifts the rudder again and maneuvers the vessel into a sharp zigzag. A mist of musty marsh water douses the crowd, and passengers let out a giddy whoop. It's just a stunt, Dorst realizes and calms herself.

Eight minutes later, the airboat arrives at the entrance to another large clearing. On the far side, less than 30 yards away, are two narrow exit arteries extending northward like the prongs of a carving fork. Thinking there are no other boats in the area, Teggart revs the boat's 700-horsepower Cadillac engine. The vessel jets into the clearing, hugging the right side.

As they pass the clearing's midpoint, Dorst sees something flicker in the corner of her eye. It's a small orange flag, hurtling toward the mouth of the left artery ahead. She leans over the metal rail and looks through her airboat's grimy windshield. It's another Gator Park boat with 20 or so passengers. As it enters the clearing, she squints at its driver and then back at Teggart. The operators clearly see each other. Stop worrying, Dorst tells herself. We'll probably just pass one another, like cars driving down a two-way street.

Suddenly, the other boat jerks left and begins veering toward her. Oh, fun, Dorst thinks, it's probably another stunt. Maybe they'll splash water at each other. Though she's not wearing a seat belt, she doesn't think to brace herself.

For a split second, Dorst locks eyes with a passenger in the opposite boat. The two share what she calls a collective "oh shit" moment. Teggart backs off the accelerator, but nothing can be done. The impact is instant. A massive side-to-side collision ensues.

Dorst's body tenses as her forehead bangs into a metal rail. High in the air behind her, Teggart is launched from her perch and lands on top of a woman in the other boat. The woman's nose twists sideways, broken. A man is ejected from his seat and tumbles into the shallow creek. As he sits up, his hips are at first numb and then painful. In the back, a third passenger shrieks. As she grabs her leg, a companion rushes to her side. They examine it, but it's too late. It seems a bone is shattered.

Blood dribbles down Dorst's face, and the taste of iron fills her mouth. She's certain her nose is broken. A pool of water wells up at her feet, and she feels the boat sinking. Suddenly, she remembers the warning, "Watch for the baby gators."

There's not even a minimum age to operate an airboat.

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The two hulls scrape and thrash against each other. Dorst hears only screaming.

Of the 48 passengers on the two boats, 25 are injured, 15 severely. Most, including Dorst, are sent to hospitals 15 miles away in Kendall. "I was hysterical," she recalls two years later. "It was my first time on an airboat — probably the last one too. How could this have happened?"

The airboat accident was just one of more than 75 that have taken place in the past three years in Florida, according to a New Times examination of state and local records. In that period, at least seven people died, including Elizabeth Goldenberg, a vivacious, gifted Israeli drama student who was crushed in front of her family the day after her graduation from the University of Miami. A 48-year-old woman perished when her head collided with a cypress tree. And five people, including a 14-year-old boy, have drowned. At least 102 airboat passengers have been seriously injured. They have suffered severed fingers and ears, lacerated livers, ruptured spleens, fractured skulls, cracked spines, and head gashes.

Though an impressive 12,164 airboats, 1,025 of which are commercial, are registered in Florida, the industry is virtually unregulated. Despite high speeds, there's no requirement to wear seat belts or life vests, and airboat pilots rarely take boating safety classes. Though 90 percent of those involved in accidents weren't wearing life jackets, three in ten told investigators they couldn't swim. More than two-fifths of all injured passengers were ejected from their seats. There's not even a minimum age to operate an airboat.

Of the scores of accident records examined by New Times, 64 percent assigned fault to the airboat driver, citing infractions such as violation of navigation rules, improper lookout, or alcohol use. Teggart, who piloted the boat on which Dorst was injured, was cited with careless and reckless driving.

"My trip shouldn't have ended this way. No one had to get hurt," Dorst says. "If guides are taking tourists to swampy areas with gators, they need to be following safety standards."

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John Tigertail and his family have operated airboats since the 1940s.
Photos by Isabella Vi Gomes

Beneath the cabbage palm fronds of a chickee hut, John Tigertail pulls back the hem of his utility shorts. Sipping cracked-corn soup from a Styrofoam cup, the husky, ponytailed 40-year-old points to a purple bull's-eye-shaped scar on his shin. "I got bit by a brown recluse," he says, referring to a spider whose venom is necrotic. Releasing his pant leg, he chuckles: "Not too bad. I've had worse."

Over the years, the soft-spoken gator-wrestler-turned-gator-nurse from the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians has confronted scores of challenges in the Glades, none more formidable than piloting his 400-horsepower Chevy motor airboat. Having mastered the craft at a young age, he established Tigertail Tours in 1996. Since then, his company, located 17 miles west of Krome Avenue on the Tamiami Trail, has taken thousands of tourists on eco-friendly airboat rides to his gator sanctuary two miles away. Over time, Tigertail, who owns one of eight major airboat agencies in the area, has come to regard his business as an essential part of Everglades eco-tourism. But he frets the industry's reputation will be tarnished by reckless, inexperienced drivers.

He watches heavy rain smack the water's surface and then trudges down a 40-yard dock, unties a mooring line, and drags a 16-foot airboat toward the water-stained dock. Since Hurricane Irma pushed through here September 10, the water level has risen a foot above the usual three. "I haven't seen it this high in 22 years," he says, adding it can make underwater brush or blockages less visible to boat operators.

In the 1920s, Tigertail's grandparents, like other Miccosukee, canoed through the area's narrow, winding straits while hunting for whitetail deer, pied-billed grebes, wild hogs, and frogs. It was a way of life, says Tigertail, recalling the first time he saw a deer killed. "I was 5 or 6. My grandma chased it down and — not to be too graphic — hit it over the head with firewood."

All of that changed in 1947, when his grandfather John piloted his first airboat.

Those were the early days of the sled-like skiffs, when only a handful skimmed across South Florida waters. Their origins remain unclear, though local lore cites four possible inventors: Scottish-born scientist Alexander Graham Bell, who came up with the idea in Canada in 1905; aviation mogul Glenn Curtiss, who designed a closed-cockpit, shallow-draft boat in 1920 before developing the cities of Hialeah, Miami Springs, and Opa-locka; professional frog hunter Johnny Lamb, who allegedly built a 75-horsepower airboat in 1933 he called the "whooshmobile"; and Chokoloskee Gladesman Willard Yates, who was reportedly the first airboat fatality when a whirling propeller blade sliced him to pieces in the mid-1930s.

Regardless, Tigertail's granddad was hooked after his first ride. He ditched his cypress-log canoe and never looked back.

"My dad always said to be careful. These things don't run like cars."

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Within a few years, Everglades trading posts turned into tourist stands, while old hunting grounds became prime boat-racing territory. Fearless airboaters rigged their crafts to handle speeds up to 135 mph, Tigertail says. (Present-day commercial airboats generally operate under 35 mph.) Eventually, the accidents piled up near the trail and the races diminished.

After shoving off and traveling two miles, Tigertail sees a prairie of tall sawgrass. He gently lifts his foot off the accelerator, and the vessel slows. Turning onto a canal flanked by slick patches of sawgrass, he explains with a slight drawl: "My dad always said to be careful. These things don't run like cars." He's been riding airboats since he was a baby, and by the age of 7, he was steering by himself. "It's my whole life," he says. "I love everything about it."

Fifteen minutes in, Tigertail docks the boat next to what he calls his "wildlife refuge," essentially a wooden platform built atop cypress roots. Post-Hurricane Irma, half of it sits six inches underwater. After hoisting three white buckets from the boat's deck, he kicks off his sneakers, steps onto the flooded platform, and slogs toward a small shed holding several glass tanks. As he pulls out three turtles and two baby gators from a bucket and transfers them into the cloudy tanks, a school of mosquitofish nibbles at the toes of his black socks.

Twelve yards away, a six-foot female alligator lurks at the foot of the stairs. Tigertail makes a clucking sound in his throat to mimic the cry of a baby gator. Warily, she wobbles toward him and looks up. "You can't see stuff like this without an airboat," he says, tenderness softening his voice.

Besides Tigertail Tours, seven other major boating companies lie on the eastern half of the Tamiami Trail. They include Gator Park, Coopertown Airboats, and Everglades Safari Park.

Most of these venues practice safe driving and are mostly free of incidents except for the occasional "freak accident," Tigertail says. It's uncommon, he insists, but admits even he has had "issues while driving alone." On two occasions, his boat's carbon-fiber propeller ejected into the air, almost landing on his head.

Nonetheless, Tigertail insists training is the main issue.

"I don't let my guides drive [anyone] until I've observed them for at least ten months, but not all places do that," he says. "If you're driving an airboat and you don't know what you're doing, things can go really wrong."

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Ellie Goldenberg was killed a day after her college graduation.
Photo courtesy of David Goldenberg

As Jerry Wayne Smith fidgets with the switches on his dashboard, a light drizzle wets the floor of the boat. "We'll be fine, just a few rounds around the inlet," the tall, blue-eyed father of seven says to his 14-year-old son Colby, a gregarious football player with brown buzzcut hair.

A couple of weeks ago, the two had built the ten-foot yellow-and-black airboat together. It was a chance to bond after a disruptive move from Folcroft, Pennsylvania. With the vessel's steering joints freshly greased, they set off from a boat ramp near Slim's Fish Camp, a marina on the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee in Belle Glade.

A few minutes in, they enter a 25-foot-deep, 180-yard-wide stretch of freshwater and sawgrass. Smith reaches for the rudder stick and yanks it back. Suddenly, a gust of wind smacks the back of the boat, and water washes over the stern. As the boat tips starboard, father and son are hurled into the water.

Gasping for air, Smith treads to the surface and screams Colby's name. Behind him, the boat begins to sink. Suddenly, he hears a piercing scream. "Dad!" Smith spins and sees Colby flailing wildly, head bobbing above the water.

Smith yells, "Shore — swim to shore!" and begins paddling toward the lush river bank, but as he approaches land, he senses something is wrong. Panicked, he swivels and sees Colby still thrashing, almost a hundred yards away.

"Instead of moving toward shore, he'd swum the other way," Smith explains painfully. The last thing he ever heard Colby gurgle was 'help.'"

Smith frantically called Palm Beach Fire Rescue. Twenty-two minutes later, they arrived and dove to the bottom of the canal, where they found his son. At 5:46 p.m. June 10, 2015, Colby Smith was pronounced dead. In an incident report, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers concluded the accident was caused by the operator's overwhelming lack of experience.

"They asked if I'd ever taken a boating safety class," Smith murmurs. "Didn't know they had 'em."

Because of their flat hulls and minimal gears, airboats are generally used in settings that would be challenging or dangerous for other types of watercraft, such as powerboats or Jet Skis. As a result, airboat accidents rarely happen because of harsh environmental conditions such as bad weather or choppy water. Instead, according to FWC records, crashes are usually the fault of the airboat operator for one of three reasons: a lack of boating education, as was the case with Jerry Smith; a lack of safety equipment, such as flotation devices; or reckless behavior, including drug or alcohol consumption. But even though these factors are largely preventable, the state has done little to prevent accidents.

"Airboats go through the rankest stuff out here. [Because] there are no restrictions whatsoever, it's up to the driver to not be irresponsible or negligent," says Gerald Motes, a 73-year-old certified veteran airboat captain, who lives full-time at a 64-year-old hunting cabin in Water Conservation 2A of the Everglades. Unfortunately, he adds, not everyone follows best practices.

On February 6, 2016, John Elwin Russ, a 72-year-old well-driller from Myakka City, south of Tampa, took his 62-year-old wife, Diane, on a romantic late-night airboat ride on the west side of Lake Okeechobee. Fishing rods and minnow bait in hand, the two departed around 7 p.m. for Bird Island, east of Lakeport, searching for a spot to lay anchor.

Twenty miles out, angry thunderheads began rolling in, but the Russes didn't turn back. Two hours later, after the storm had passed, state emergency operators received a call: Two people hadn't returned to the Harney Pond Canal boat ramp in Okeechobee.

For hours, a search party of FWC officers and U.S. Coast Guardsmen scanned the waters till morning. Finally, at 11:16 a.m., they noticed a slick of fuel. Ten feet beneath the surface was a 15-foot silver airboat. Divers quickly confirmed it belonged to the Russes, though neither John nor Diane could be found.

"It didn't make sense," Diane's 44-year-old niece Gail Stocky says. "Uncle Elwin was a great swimmer. Aunt Diane not so much, but if the weather was bad, Uncle Elwin would've made sure she had a life jacket on."

A week later, a fisherman discovered Diane's body, floating face-down and still wearing green rain pants, lace-up boots, and a fanny pack. Four days later, John's body, barefoot and in camouflage overalls and a blue jacket, was found 3.5 miles away.

Because neither was wearing a life jacket, the cause of death was accidental drowning.

State law requires that airboat operators carry enough life vests for each passenger — but only children under the age of 6 are required to wear them at all times. Despite airboating three to four times per day, Motes says he rarely encounters FWC officers patrolling the waters. Plus, there's no curfew for airboat driving. Consequently, operators often fail to stock their boats with jackets, while those who do are rarely able to access them fast enough in the event of an accident.

Even so, Motes insists the majority of drivers aren't to blame. Rather, he says, "it's the partiers, the beginners with no training, and the people with no liability insurance" that are endangering other drivers and passengers.

Distracted by their reactions, Youmans veered dangerously close to the marshy east bank.

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Among these novices and careless operators is William Youmans, a short, green-eyed 49-year-old from Floral City, a town about 70 miles north of Tampa, who took his new airboat out for a test drive September 25, 2016. His 48-year-old friend Mary Hall tagged along.

Grabbing an eight-pack of beer, a cooler, and Youmans' miniature schnauzer, Dodger, the two jumped into Youmans' 1999 Plymouth Voyager and drove three miles south to the Duval Island boat ramp. Launching the 12-foot, two-seated airboat, they cruised around Floral City Lake and then jetted toward Hot Dog Island, a fast-food joint in Inverness, four miles away. There, Hall drank five beers, and Youmans had two — or maybe more, he'd later say when FWC investigators questioned him.

After an hour, they returned to the vessel and prepared to head home. As they entered a narrow canal, Youmans began to closely tail another driver's airboat. He accelerated to 50 mph and zoomed past the other boat, playfully spraying its occupants. Distracted by their reactions, Youmans veered dangerously close to the marshy east bank.

About 200 feet later, the boat rammed into a cypress tree. Youmans, Hall, and Dodger were ejected and collided with the tree. Only Youmans survived.

Later, at Citrus Memorial Hospital in Inverness, Youmans met FWC Officer Larry Ayers, who asked him what happened. Youmans, who smelled of alcohol, claimed "it was all a blank," according to a report. He couldn't remember anything after he and Hall left Hot Dog Island. A blood test indicated his blood alcohol level was between 0.08 and 0.11, equivalent to that of a 135-pound male after drinking four beers. It is significantly higher than Florida's legal limit for operating boats and vehicles. Charged with manslaughter, Youmans pleaded not guilty. He's awaiting trial.

"It's the few bad apples in the barrel — the totally irresponsible people — who have no business being out on the water," Motes says.

As if to prove his point, Florida's most tragic accident occurred less than a year later.

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Two years after the Gator Park accident, Erika Panassie and her son Jorquera are still suffering.
Photo courtesy of Julio Acosta

On May 12, 2017, Elizabeth "Ellie" Goldenberg, a bubbly, wide-smiling musical-theater prodigy from Haifa, Israel, known for her big voice and big curls, graduated magna cum laude from the University of Miami. "She won the highest award — the only award from the theater department," says her father David, a head and neck surgeon who had flown in from Hershey, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Renee, a radiologist; and their younger daughter, Dana.

A proud parent, David had scoured websites for the perfect way to celebrate his 22-year-old's milestone before the family headed back home. After a labored search, he settled on a $400, 90-minute private airboat tour of the Everglades. The host he chose was River of Grass Adventures, an outfit located on the corner of Krome Avenue and the Tamiami Trail. "They were ranked number one on TripAdvisor," he says feebly.

The day after graduation, the four drove in a rental car westward and stopped at the Shell gas station across the street from Miccosukee Resort & Gaming. There, they met with a man who identified himself as "Captain Bear," who quickly shuttled them to a boat ramp on the Tamiami Trail. Tour guide Steve Gagne and his 15-foot 2015 McGinnis airboat awaited. That morning, the water table was particularly low, compared with most other seasons, because of recent droughts. The current was calm and the sky was bright.

Clambering into the vessel, Renee and David sat in the front row. Ellie sat in the middle by herself, and Dana settled beside Gagne in the back. At 11:45 a.m., the group set off.

Eventually, they arrived at a narrow trail surrounded by five-foot-tall sawgrass. In the distance, they could see a broken-down vessel blocking the path while its weary operator stood in the water. When they approached, moving faster than 20 mph according to an incident report, the driver in the water gestured to go around him. Gagne nodded and attempted to pass the disabled vessel. First he skidded onto the embankment on the right, bow first, ripping across the vegetation and overtaking the shipwrecked vessel.

But then, as Gagne tried to maneuver back onto the trail, the airboat tipped.

"The last thing I remember was my wife sitting beside me," says David, his voice wavering. As the boat rolled onto its side, the entire family and Gagne were ejected into the water. The boat pinned David's right leg. Renee was launched into a marsh 20 feet away. The airboat's engine burned Dana, and Ellie landed in front of the vessel.

It slipped forward, trapping Ellie beneath the cage. Renee and Dana saw her lying face-down in the muddy water. They screamed for Gagne to help them lift the boat. They tried, but it wouldn't budge. David attempted to help, but his leg was still pinned.

Ten minutes later, another airboat passed. Its occupants quickly jumped out and waded over. The group lifted the vessel and extracted Ellie's crumpled body. During the ride to the boat ramp, Renee, distraught, compressed Ellie's chest, praying CPR would bring her daughter back.

"My wife and daughter watched [Ellie] die," David says tearfully. "She was just a couple weeks shy of her 23rd birthday. There's this deep sadness of the waste of a sweet, beautiful life."

For the rest of the summer, the parents dressed the wounds of their remaining child. During the crash, Dana had sustained second- and third-degree burns over 4 percent of her body. Eventually, David returned to his practice, while Renee was forced to take a temporary leave. She'd been diagnosed with a concussion, ocular disturbances, whiplash, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

"We've all been having horrible flashbacks," David says.

In the incident report, an FWC officer noted Gagne had watery eyes and a dry mouth hours after the accident. A toxicology report confirmed the officer's suspicions. Gagne's blood showed more than 13 nanograms of tetrahydrocannabinol, the primary psychoactive part of cannabis. That's almost three times Colorado's legal limit for drivers. (Miami-Dade County records show no evidence of an arrest, and New Times' attempts to reach Gagne for comment were unsuccessful.)

"I've seen a lot of tragedies during my decade in office, but this really broke my heart," says Florida Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a 37-year-old Democrat from Palm Beach Gardens who, by coincidence, attended Ellie Goldenberg's graduation ceremony. "I couldn't believe it."

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Despite a crash that injured her leg, Shawn Levine says she has continued airboating but hopes to see improvements in regulation.
Photo by Laura Morcate

The State of Florida places few regulations on airboats. There are no speed limits, and even in restricted zones, the law only vaguely requires airboaters "[to] operate at the minimum speed that allows the vessel to maintain headway and steerage." Also, there is no minimum age for piloting an airboat, though all drivers born January 1, 1988, or after must obtain a boating safety education identification card.

There are only two airboat-specific requirements: Engine exhausts must have mufflers, and orange flags have to be hitched at least ten feet above the lowest part of the boat.

Miami-based attorney Don Mason, who has represented multiple plaintiffs injured in boating mishaps, says violators are often punished only once they cause an accident. "It's a glorified rowboat with a high-powered airplane engine that is capable of incredible speeds despite having no brakes or seat belts," he says. "They're like skipping stones, plus they've got no control when a dangerous situation arises."

"It's a glorified rowboat with a high-powered airplane engine."

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A New Times survey of three years of state records shows that airboaters, who own only about 2 percent of the state's million or so boats, are likelier to be busted for speeding than conventional boaters and far less likely to wear life jackets. Many of those injured were riding on large commercial craft.

The survey also revealed the following:

• The majority of those injured on airboats suffered severe cuts, bruises, and broken limbs. For example, 26-year-old Bryan Eldridge from Inverness, Florida, lost his ring finger when it was sliced off by a propeller blade in 2015.

• About 10 percent of those injured suffered neck and back injuries, requiring surgery and long-term pain medication. Andy Wolford, a 42-year-old from Arcadia, endured four vertebrae cracks in 2016.

• A similar number sustained traumatic head and brain injuries, including bleeding and concussions. Erika Panassie, a 40-year-old passenger in Gator Park's 48-person accident, not only lost her left ear but also watched her son, 15-year-old Jorquera, fracture his neck and suffer a serious head injury that has resulted in learning disabilities and memory deficits.

Just this past November 12, 71-year-old Motilail Persaud of Kissimmee and 84-year-old Richard Rocco of Orlando were killed in an airboat accident near the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp off the St. Johns River in Cocoa. Authorities haven't released additional details because the investigation is ongoing, but 31-year-old Timothy Young, who witnessed the crash while fishing, told a local newspaper the airboat's operator, 53-year-old Harold Ramprasad from Orlando, was driving fast and turned into his own wake, flipping the boat. Both Ramprasad and another passenger, 20-year-old Aneuri Luna of Kissimmee, survived.

Many South Florida law firms have noticed the lack of stewardship in the airboat industry and solicited airboat-related cases. Some lawsuits have resulted in generous settlements. This past October, Julio Acosta, a personal injury attorney based in Coral Gables, represented the Panassies in a case against Gator Park. He says the case was settled October 19 for an undisclosed amount but laments, "They'll be dealing with their injuries for the rest of their lives. It's affected everything."

Shawn Levine, a 37-year-old firefighter and mother of two, suffered a shredded knee when she was hit by a state employee's airboat just south of Alligator Alley in 2015. She's still in physical therapy. "There's pain every day, but the hardest part is having to inconvenience other people because some inexperienced weekend warrior was reckless while operating an airboat," she says.

Recently, Senator Abruzzo began drafting an airboat safety bill for the legislative session that begins in January. He hopes to require training courses such as driver's education and CPR certification, as well as drug testing. "We will not know the names and faces of those saved, but deep down, someone's life at some point will be saved," Abruzzo says.

David Goldenberg, Ellie's father, agrees, adding that a comprehensive boating safety law is critical. "Every death is heartbreaking," he says, trembling. "No one should have to go through what my family is going through."

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Isabella Vi Gomes was a writing fellow at Miami New Times. She graduated from Princeton University in 2016. She then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.