On December 30, 2002, the U.S. small passenger vessel Panther, a 31-foot open wood-and-fiberglass boat operated by Everglades National Park Boat Tours, was on its third tour of the day in the Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park, Florida, with 33 passengers on board (including 5 children) plus a master. Midway through the tour, shortly after 1430, the vessel sank in about 12 feet of water in Indian Key Pass, about 3 1/2 miles from the National Park Service visitor center near Everglades City. Three nearby vessels responded to the accident and rescued all the passengers and the master from the water. The U.S. Coast Guard launched a search-and-rescue operation that involved five Coast Guard stations in south Florida; however, responders did not find any passengers in the water. No fatalities resulted from the accident, but one passenger suffered a serious injury. Damage to the Panther was estimated at $60,000. The Coast Guard reported that costs of the search-and-rescue operation exceeded $50,000.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the Panther's sinking was flooding through a hull breach, which resulted from an earlier grounding and which Everglades National Park Boat Tours neglected to address, instead choosing to operate the vessel with a known failure of watertight integrity and inappropriately relying on the bilge pumps to keep the vessel afloat, thus continually putting its passengers at risk.
Based on its investigation, the Safety Board identified the adequacy of the following as safety issues:
- Company operations;
- Company's preventive maintenance program; and
- Lifejacket stowage.
As a result of its investigation of this accident, the Safety Board makes two new recommendations to the National Park Service.
As a result of its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following safety recommendations.
To the National Park Service:
Require that concessionaire companies operating passenger vessels in your jurisdictions develop and implement a preventive maintenance program for all systems affecting the safe operation of their vessels, including the hull and mechanical and electrical systems. (M-04-01)
Establish oversight procedures to verify, on a regular basis, that concessionaires who operate passenger vessels in the national park system have adequate preventive maintenance and safety programs. (M-04-02)
Previously Issued Recommendation Resulting from This Accident Investigation
To the National Park Service:
Establish oversight procedures to verify, on a regular basis, that tour boat concessionaires who operate in the national park system carry an appropriately sized lifejacket for every child on board. (M-03-1)
Safety Recommendation M-03-1 is discussed in the "Actions Taken Since the Accident" section of this report. The Safety Board has classified Safety Recommendation M-03-1 as "Open-Acceptable Response." Previously Issued Recommendation Classified in This Report
To the U.S. Coast Guard:
Issue a directive to small passenger vessel operators to review the distribution of lifejackets on board their vessels and to ensure that the lifejackets are accessible and segregated. (M-02-13)
Safety Recommendation M-02-13 (previously classified "Open-Acceptable Response") is classified "Closed-Acceptable Action" in the "Lifejacket Stowage" section of this report.