Thirty-three people, including five children, were aboard when the vessel sank in 12 feet of water during an afternoon tour of the park. All passengers were rescued, and there were no injuries or fatalities.
The NTSB findings identified a hull fracture at the strut connection as the primary cause of the sinking. A month before the accident, Panther had grounded and apparently sustained damage that compromised the integrity of its hull. The vessel’s owners, Everglades National Park Boat Tours, kept the boat in service, even though it was continually taking on water. The company relied on bilge pumps to keep the water out and maintain freeboard, according to the report.
“It is likely that the Panther’s high-level bilge alarm was not connected at the time of the accident,” nor could the inspectors determine if the starboard bilge pump was operating, the report said.
During their inspection, the NTSB also discovered that wood rot was present in a portion of the hull, indicating a lack of maintenance.
The NTSB also criticized the company and the master for operating the vessel in a substandard manner. The master failed to ensure that his vessel was safe to operate before embarking on the tour, the NTSB said. The master also failed to notice that he had dangerously reduced freeboard and was taking on water through the deck scuppers.
Rick Cook, public affairs spokesman for Everglades National Park, said that although the National Park Service did not require routine inspection of the tour boats, the federal agency was now establishing oversight procedures to assure adequate safety and maintenance programs.
Based on NTSB recommendations, the NPS is requiring concessionaires to develop and implement preventive maintenance programs and ensure that operators review the distribution and accessibility of life jackets aboard their vessels.
The U.S. Coast Guard fined the vessel’s owner $10,000. The fine has been paid, and the master’s license was suspended, according to Coast Guard Chief Robert Williams, with the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office Miami.
Despite these actions, Williams said that the investigation is not officially closed.
Cook said that Everglades National Park Boat Tours was still operating in the park but that the bidding process for a new concessionaire was underway.