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Clearwater parasail accident investigated after tourist is severely injured

CLEARWATER — Labor Day is usually one of the biggest draws for parasailing operations along the beach.

But on Monday, as state and local officials investigated a Sunday parasailing accident, no such operations were in the water at Clearwater Beach.

A 27-year-old Georgia woman was critically injured during a Sunday afternoon parasail ride when the tether between her harness and a towboat snapped, sending her crashing onto the beach. Her fiance, who landed in the water, had minor injuries.

Local authorities, including Clearwater police, the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, have launched an investigation into the Clearwater company responsible for the ride.

On Monday afternoon, wildlife commission officers boarded the boat owned by Sky Screamer Parasailing. An officer said they were impounding it as part of the investigation.

• • •

In the hours before Sunday afternoon's accident, chief lifeguard Donovan Burns watched the ominous dark clouds from his post on Clearwater Beach.

On his radar, he saw a mass about the size of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties moving toward the coast.

"The whole horizon was dark," he said. "This was a significantly sized storm, and we saw it coming for hours."

The winds picked up about 2:30 p.m., he said. In the next half-hour, winds jumped from 7 mph to 22 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Gusts topped out over 34 mph in the area.

About 3 p.m., the tether connecting Shaun Ladd and Alejandra White to Sky Screamer Parasailing's towboat snapped.

White crashed into the beach on a runaway parachute. She had life-threatening injuries after she slammed into beach umbrellas and a post on a volleyball court as she was dragged behind the chute.

As of 11 p.m. Monday she was listed in critical condition at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

Two other people were on the boat. Gary Morse, a wildlife commission spokesman, said their injuries were extremely minor.

• • •

There are no laws regulating when parasailing companies can or cannot take customers out on the water.

High winds are responsible for the vast majority of accidents, said Morse.

"Good seamanship requires boaters to watch the weather at all times," he said.

A string of parasailing accidents have been reported over the years.

In 2001, a mother and her 13-year-old daughter were killed in Fort Myers after their tow line broke in stormy weather. A few years later, beachgoers off Madeira Beach rescued two teen girls who floated helplessly over power lines and buildings when their tow rope snapped. In 2007, a teen girl died after a parasailing accident in South Florida.

"People think they're signing up for a fun day on the water, but in reality you're going out and being hung several hundred feet up in the air, and there is a danger in that," said Kevin McLaughlin, a partner at Tampa's Wagner, Vaughan & McLaughlin law firm, which represented relatives in the Fort Myers case. "There's really very little margin for error when you have people up at those altitudes."

Former state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, proposed legislation to tighten regulation on the industry three years in a row, the last time in 2006. Each time it failed.

The proposed law, among other things, would have banned parasailing when gusts were 23 mph or higher. Sebesta couldn't be reached for comment.

• • •

Although there is no law, most operators' insurance requires parasail companies to follow safety guidelines established by industry organizations, said Hale Wilson, owner of Eagle Parasail in Madeira Beach.

Wilson said his crews stopped operations sometime between 2 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

"The wind conditions were good at that time," he said, estimating that winds were about 7 mph. "We shut down because we saw inclement weather on the radar, and it looked like it was approaching pretty fast."

Wilson, who has been in the business for over 20 years, said that a variety of factors, including wind, determine whether a company will continue parasailing.

"You watch the weather," said Jodi Mendoza, who owned an area parasailing company for 15 years. "We watched it constantly. If it looked like it was getting black up in Tarpon Springs, we stopped. … These people are greedy. That's all it is. You can't fly a parasail when it's that windy."

Shortly after the incident, officials had to close the beach because of lightning, said Burns, the chief lifeguard.

Calls to Sky Screamer Parasailing were not returned Sunday or Monday. Its three parasailing shacks, which line the side of Causeway Boulevard, were shuttered.

Jerimey Miller, on vacation from Fort Wayne, Ind., was walking along the beach Monday afternoon.

He said he tried to go parasailing about 1 p.m. Sunday but was $10 short. After hearing about Sunday's incident, he said he wouldn't be going up.

"And I'm a risk taker, too," he said.

Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report.

Clearwater parasail accident investigated after tourist is severely injured 09/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 7:10am]
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