Airboat accident in gator-infested waters kills 2 people

A Sunday evening search for two missing airboaters after the boat crashed and sank. Video by Tim Shortt. Posted 11/12/17.

MELBOURNE, Fla. -- Two boaters were found dead Sunday night in alligator-infested waters after an airboat accident west of Cocoa.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office spent several hours Sunday night searching for the pair, but both were found dead. 

Two other boaters who made it to shore are doing OK, the FWC said. 

"It's definitely not the turnout we like or expect," Chad Weber, with the FWC, told Florida Today news partner WKMG-TV.

Weber did not confirm whether the two men whose bodies were recovered were wearing life jackets.

"Boating, even though it's a recreation activity, can be dangerous," he said. "Just take precautions. You can't plan for every accident, but life jackets save lives, so wear a life jacket." 

The names of the four men on board the airboat were not released and the investigation continues.

The incident was first reported about 5 p.m. ET Sunday at the River Lakes Conservation Area across from Lone Cabbage Fish Camp, a popular stop for tourists and locals wanting flat-bottom boat rides through the surrounding grassy marshland or access to the St. Johns River.

"The guy was driving kind of fast and he turned in his own wake ... he ended up flipping his airboat," said 31-year-old Timothy Young, who was at the north side boat ramp at Lone Cabbage, fishing with friends. The scene that followed was "chaos," said Young, adding that people were screaming.

"Everybody was worried about them," Young said.

Two boats went out in the waters and retrieved two of the men. The others could not be found.

"I knew from the get-go that something was wrong. I'm an experienced airboater. The back half of the boat was sitting kind of low before everything happened," Young said. 

Airboat accidents are rare, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statistics. In 2016, 31 of the state's 714 accidents involved an airboat. 

In May a recent University of Miami graduate was killed while on a airboat ride in the Everglades with her sister and parents, according to the Sun-Sentinel. Elizabeth Goldenberg, 22, was pinned under the engine and killed, while the other passengers and captain were thrown from the airboat when it came upon another disabled vessel, according to the FWC.

And in May 2016, Tyler Johns, a swamp buggy racer, had part of his left arm severed in an airboat accident, according to the Naples Daily News.

Florida does not require boaters to have a license, according to the wildlife commission. A Boating Safety Education Identification Card, earned by completing a boating safety course online, is sufficient to operated at vessel powered by a motor of 10 horsepower or more and is valid for life, according to the FWCC.

A charter captain must comply with U.S. Coast Guard requirements.

The St. Johns River, which flows north toward Jacksonville and is the state's longest river, has remained high in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which inundated central Florida in September.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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