Gliding along in a parasail, the young Georgia couple marveled at what lay before them: the Gulf of Mexico, miles of white sand beaches, a tropical paradise. They had visited several beaches in Florida and South Carolina, looking for the perfect spot to get married.
Clearwater Beach was their favorite.
On a warm September afternoon, riding high above the slate-blue waters, they soaked it all in.
Their thoughts were far away from a storm cell lingering offshore and the winds that were about to thrust them into a personal hell.
It started with a loud snap.
• • •
Alejandra White, 27, was enthralled by the parasail hovering over the water.
Peering out at the gulf from the eighth floor of a beachfront hotel, she told her fiance she wanted to try it.
Shaun Ladd wasn't so sure. The 31-year-old was afraid of heights.
But she insisted. And he agreed.
"If you want to do it, I can't let you do it by yourself," he said.
They walked to Skyscreamer Parasail and were told there weren't enough people and would have to wait another hour.
But two more couples quickly appeared behind them. So they all signed up.
"We can beat the storm," a parasail operator said, Ladd recalls.
White and Ladd were the second couple aloft. They donned safety vests and hooked into a harness, dangling side by side from a parachute pulled by a rope attached to the back of a Skyscreamer boat.
They went up for about five minutes before the parasail operator lowered them enough to dip their feet in the gulf, then back up for three or four minutes, Ladd said.
The operators had pulled them within 50 feet of the boat when Ladd felt the wind pick up, then suddenly get violent. They were tossed in their harnesses about three times.
"We were just gone at that point," he said.
They climbed through the air untethered from the boat before floating back toward the water.
Both were still hooked to the chute as they began scraping the water, the wind taking them toward the beach. The water slapped them in the face so much they could barely breathe, Ladd said.
He remembers thinking: "I am going to die right here. I am going to die in my parasail."
Suddenly Ladd slammed into something — probably a wave — that ripped him from the harness and dumped him in the water.
White screamed. The parachute was carrying her toward the beach. Ladd was in the water, disoriented, his arms purple and bruised.
Meanwhile, she was being dragged across the sand, hitting beach umbrellas, chairs and a 4-by-4 post holding up a volleyball net.
Eventually Ladd saw his fiancee lying on the beach and made his way to her. She wasn't breathing, but her pulse was strong and he didn't see much blood.
"She looked like she was sleeping," he said. "She didn't look hurt."
• • •
At Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, a doctor said White had severe brain injuries. The prognosis wasn't good. The next five or six days were crucial.
"I didn't know what to think," Ladd said. "I was in shock."
Doctors had to remove part of her brain that was badly damaged when her skull was cracked. Pressure inside her head reached fatal levels.
She held on for nearly a week. On Sept. 11 at 11:31 a.m., she died from complications of blunt trauma.
• • •
A little over a month since the crash, Ladd is filled with questions he can't answer and daily reminders of the woman he will never see again.
He hasn't spoken publicly about that day until now.
Photos of her fill their home in Lawrenceville, Ga. Her clothes are still neatly tucked away. Her suitcase is still packed — he's not ready to tackle that yet.
Though they knew a storm was brewing in the gulf, Ladd said he and White assumed the winds wouldn't become violent. At most, maybe a little rain.
He remembers talking to one of the parasail operators about going up. He was assured it was okay to go. They want to make money, not get people hurt, the operator said.
For weeks after the crash, Ladd would pick up his phone at 2 p.m., when she used to call him. But there are no more calls.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission continue to investigate. No boat licenses have been revoked. No charges filed.
Skyscreamer, which closed temporarily after the incident, is carrying new customers into the air. A woman who answered the phone at the business hung up on a reporter seeking comment Wednesday.
Jason Schneider, an Atlanta lawyer representing Ladd and the White estate, said he plans to sue the parasail operators and anyone else responsible once the parasail vessel has been released and the Coast Guard completes its investigation.
The family hopes criminal charges will be filed, but Schneider worries that the Coast Guard has already blamed equipment failure. A Coast Guard spokesman said no conclusions have been reached.
• • •
Ladd wonders what he could have done differently that day.
What if he didn't take the last-minute trip to Clearwater? Or been adamant about not parasailing? Or had gotten her out of the harness?
"You think, think, think … I can't think of a good way out of it," he said.
So he thinks. And he hopes.
He hopes she didn't suffer.