UPDATED: Authorities Confirm the Deaths of Father and Daughter at Biscayne National Park

Rangers and emergency service personnel searching for the victims earlier this week. NPS photo.

The spring boating season is off to a sad start at Biscayne National Park in Florida, where authorities have released additional details about the deaths of a father and daughter last weekend.

According to the initial park report,

On Sunday, April 5, 2009, Phillip Burke and his eight-year-old daughter Tara headed out on the bay in their 17-foot vessel with a raft attached to the stern. Burke had promised to spend a day on the water with his daughter since an earlier trip had to be canceled due to a flat tire on his boat trailer.

They left Black Point Marina, located adjacent to the park’s boundary, around 4 p.m. on Sunday. Later that night, the Coast Guard was notified that they were overdue. A major air and water search was launched that involved rangers, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers, Miami-Dade police and fire and rescue personnel and Coral Gables police.

Burke’s vessel was found at daybreak the next day near the mangrove coastline, with the keys in the ignition, the engine off and the shifter in neutral. All his belongings were on board, including life vests. Chief ranger Didier Carod and rangers Jared Brierley, Robert Romer and Evan Pickford searched every corner of the park for Burke and his daughter with the assistance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agents with full diving gear.

Burke’s body was found around noon by a citizen. A second body was spotted nearby from a Coast Guard helicopter and park staff responded. The ICE agents entered the water and recovered eight-year-old Tara Burke’s body.

Additional details in the tragic incident were released yesterday.

The Medical Examiner's office has determined that drowning was the cause of both deaths, but what triggered the tragedy remains a mystery. Neither victim suffered any trauma and their 17-foot boat showed no evidence of a collision. The father was described as an experienced boater. The deaths were ruled accidental by the ME's office.

According to Didier Carod, the park's chief ranger, the girl did not have a life jacket on when searchers found her just south of Black Ledge. Police would not say whether father or daughter had been wearing life jackets while on the boat, citing the ongoing investigation. Pictures of the boat also show a large inner tube on the back, which could potentially be towed by the boat. It is unclear whether it had been used that day.

Carod noted that federal law requires that anyone being towed wear a life jacket and that, in addition to the boat operator, a person at least 12 years old must be present to act as a lookout. Father and daughter left Black Point Marina around 4 p.m. on Sunday. That afternoon the wind was blowing at 15 to 20 knots from the southwest on Biscayne Bay, which could create waves of a few feet, Carod said. When the pair hadn't returned hours later, the family called the Coast Guard, touching off a massive search.

As we approach another summer season, perhaps this tragic event will serve as a timely reminder for boaters about the value of wearing a life vest.