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For one Florida mother, parasailing regulation long overdue

Alone in her Ocala garden, Shannon Hively felt relieved.

Her teenage girls were on vacation with neighbors in Pompano Beach. They had just called, begging to go parasailing.

Hively wavered. Her neighbor got on the line. A storm was approaching so it was likely the boat operators wouldn't go out anyway. Hively hung up, happy that for once she didn't have to be the bad guy.

An hour later, as she planted a gardenia, her phone rang again. A stranger, screaming, told her the girls had, in fact, gone parasailing, and something was wrong. They can swim, Hively yelled. Get them out of the water.

"Ma'am, they're not in water," the woman said. "They're blowing over the beach."

After the rope snapped, their yellow parasail dragged them into the roof of a two-story home before tangling in a tree. Her youngest daughter was killed, the other brain damaged.

Months later, Hively set out to fix the problem she blamed for the tragedy: a void of regulation in an industry clearly needing it.

That was 2007.

For the first time, a Florida governor will soon have the opportunity to sign into law a bill that would impose restrictions on how parasail companies do business. The new rules would, among other things, force operators to carry $1 million of insurance per rider, and would prohibit parasailing in sustained winds exceeding 20 mph or gusts reaching 25 mph.

Hively expected this years ago.

"I was so naive back then," she said. "I thought that people would understand."

For Hively and so many others, it was baffling that Florida officials closely monitored trades like body piercing and tattooing and tanning salons — none of which is likely to kill — but avoided scrutinizing an industry that lifts people hundreds of feet into the air and drags them around with a tow rope.

Between 2001 and October 2013, there were 21 parasailing accidents in this state that resulted in 23 injuries and six deaths, according to a Senate report.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, blamed Florida lawmakers' historical resistance to any new regulations for the continued lack of oversight.

"There are a lot of common sense bills that don't get through," she said.

She had even heard colleagues insist that anyone willing to parasail should accept the risk.

"That's a 1950s argument," she said. "Sometimes we need to wake up as a state."

This session, Sachs involved all stakeholders: victims' families, legislative leadership, Gov. Rick Scott and, perhaps most importantly, members of the industry.

"It was a very reasonable approach," said Larry Meddock, executive director of the Water Sports Industry Association. "We've been in favor of it for the last three years."

Much of the statute, in fact, was taken from rules he and others already had developed.

Mike Stockwell, owner of Gators Parasail in Madeira Beach, welcomes the new law. He said his boats already maintain the necessary insurance and avoid inclement weather.

He hopes, too, that the legislation will force out competitors who have long cut corners.

"It's real easy to parasail safely," he said. "Keep your equipment in good shape and only go out when weather conditions allow. You do that and it's not real tough."

The company that took out Hively's teenagers, she said, followed none of those guidelines.

As they neared 200 feet, the wind picked up and her younger daughter, Amber May White, panicked. The girl, who was 15, begged the boat operators to bring her back down but the winch didn't have enough strength to get them down. Moments later, Hively said, the decaying rope tore.

Amber May's neck was broken and she died two days later, on Hively's birthday. Her other daughter, Crystal White, survived with a gashed face and head trauma.

Their mother soon hired attorney John Leighton, who has since worked alongside her to change the law. Because of a confidentiality agreement, Hively can't discuss how much insurance the since-closed parasail company carried, though she called it "very little."

Hively is ecstatic, and thankful, that the law is poised to change, but wonders if such a law passed a decade ago could have protected her family.

Crystal, now 24, remembers the moments before the crash — hugs and an exchange of I love yous — but what happened in the weeks that followed no longer remain in her memory: coming out of a coma, lying on her sister's hospital bed, attending the funeral.

She continues to suffer side effects. Crystal got her high school diploma and became a massage therapist, but incessant headaches make such physical work difficult. Hively believes her daughter suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

This, Hively said, should not have been her family's fate.

"I have trouble calling it an accident," she said. "I call it negligence."

Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

For one Florida mother, parasailing regulation long overdue 05/06/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 9:30am]
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