Airboat rescue death deemed nation's first
SPRINGFIELD – When the Cornish, N.H., Rescue Squad airboat swamped and sank with Virginia "Ginny" Yates aboard Tuesday, causing her to drown, it was the country's first fatality involving an airboat rescue, experts in the field said Friday.
Experts also said crew members apparently made a big mistake when they strapped Yates' backboard and litter to the rescue airboat's hull. Tying her down effectively made it impossible for Yates to survive the boat's sinking, they said.
Airboats are prone to swamping, and when they swamp they descend within seconds, not minutes, several experts pointed out. That makes escaping from them extremely difficult.
And airboats, which were featured prominently in news reports of rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina, increasingly are ending up in inexperienced hands, said Philip Walters, president of the Florida Airboat Association, a private trade and owners' organization
Walters said he wasn't surprised to learn of the fatality in New Hampshire, which he said is the nation's first involving a rescue airboat.
"We all knew it was coming," he said. "It was just a matter of time."
The boat, designed in the early 1900s for use in Florida's Everglades, "has really come out of the closet" in the past year, he said.
Airboats have been involved in fatal accidents before, Walters said. But this is the first fatality his organization has become aware of involving an airboat used as a rescue craft, he said.
The boat's vulnerability to swamping is something operators have to keep in mind at all times, said David McClain, sales manager for Alumitech Airboats Inc. of Orlando, Fla., one of the country's largest airboat manufacturers.
"That's why they don't put seatbelts on airboats," he said. McClain said he learned the hard way.
"I killed my own dog. I tied him to my boat to keep him from jumping out. You can't do that. You can't tie any human being or a dog to a boat," McClain said Friday.
The "worst thing" anyone can do to an airboat is to put additional weight on the bow, he said "It will ruin the way the boat rides," he said, making the craft extremely unstable.
McClain said that while airboat customers often insist on seat belts, the company requires them to sign a waiver of liability before installing them, because of the hazards they pose.
Details of the fatal rescue attempt continue to emerge very slowly, and experts contacted Friday said they had no personal knowledge of the Connecticut River incident and were speaking in general terms about airboat safety and standards.
New Hampshire investigators have kept a tight lid on information. Dozens of people were involved in the failed rescue, including four rescuers who were dumped into the Connecticut River with Yates when the airboat sunk. Others watched from the shore at Hoyts Landing in Springfield.
One piece of information authorities have released, however, is that the Stokes litter carrying Yates was fastened to the boat's bow, or front.
The Sullivan County, N.H., attorney, whose office handles criminal prosecutions, and the N.H. Marine Patrol, which is conducting the investigation, have promised a thorough investigation.
Yates died Tuesday after the rescue boat transporting her from a private dock in Springfield to a waiting ambulance at Hoyts Landing sunk, trapping her underwater. Earlier in the afternoon, she had slipped and fallen on the private dock, hitting her head and twisting her ankle. Friends said she was not seriously injured, and had requested that no ambulance be called.
Robert Dummett of Lake Wales, Fla., chairman of the Florida Airboat Association's safety committee, said that when he viewed photographs of the retrieved Cornish airboat, one thing struck him immediately — that the Stokes litter should not have been tied to the hull.
A nationally decorated firefighter and emergency rescue expert for the Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue Department, Dummett said the Stokes litter also apparently contained no Styrofoam, a flotation feature that is standard for marine rescue litters.
"It should have had a flotation ring," he said Thursday. "For true marine application, it should have had a Styrofoam ring all the way around it.
Dummett, who is retired, was instrumental in organizing the flotilla of rescue airboats that helped retrieve thousands of stranded New Orleans residents a year ago after Hurricane Katrina. He said this is the first rescue airboat fatality he has ever heard of. He has been keeping track of airboat safety for many years, he said.
Florida law enforcement and rescue officials have experienced airboat mishaps, in some cases sinking their own boats through lack of experience, Walters said.
"On an airboat, there is no steerage or control, unless you have power," said Walters, a professional alligator hunter. "You can't maneuver unless you have throttle."
Another experienced airboat rescue operator, Officer George Lainhart of the College Park, Ga., police department, said flatly: "I would never strap a litter to the bow of my boat in an aquatic situation."
Lainhart was one of hundreds of airboat operators who helped evacuate New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Dummett said he had taken the airboat training class offered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, training that is required by most state agencies in Florida for people who use airboats in an official capacity. He and others said an airboat handles like no other boat; for one thing, it can't go backwards. Its main advantage, he said, is that it can go where other boats cannot, even on dry land and ice.
Airboats' primary use in northern climates is for ice rescue, according to Ron Miller, Alumitech's search and rescue representative. Miller said the boats are in wide use in Michigan, where he is based.
Neither the Vermont State Police or the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife have airboats, and representatives of both agencies said they have no knowledge of any rescue squad or fire department in the state that has one.
While there are private airboats in Vermont, the only government use of an airboat appears to be in the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Swanton.
At Missisquoi, David Frisque, assistant refuge manager, said that the refuge uses an older-model airboat to look for water chestnuts in Lake Champlain. The Fish and Wildlife Service requires several days of training, including one-on-one time with an instructor, Frisque said.
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