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Despite numerous tragedies, parasailing industry still lacks oversight

Parasailing accidents along Florida's west coast have killed or severely injured numerous people in the past 20 years, yet the industry remains largely unregulated.

No state or federal agency inspects or certifies parasailing equipment and no specific license is given to parasailing operations.

The state Legislature has consistently rejected attempts at passing legislation. The U.S. Coast Guard, which issues permits for parasail boats, has declined to intervene.

The absence of oversight was brought to light anew this weekend when a 27-year-old Georgia woman was severely injured after her tow line snapped in bad weather. Alejandra White remained in critical condition Tuesday at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

But her case has renewed concerns among parasailing experts who once espoused voluntary guidelines.

"No longer do I believe that voluntary regulation is going to work," said Mark McCulloh of the national Parasail Safety Council. "If they don't take charge of this, there is going to be more (deaths). It's lawlessness.''

• • •

According to authorities, White and her fiance, Shaun Ladd, contracted with the Sky Screamer Parasail company at the Clearwater municipal marina for an afternoon ride on Sunday.

They were about 50 feet in the air behind a Sky Screamer boat a mile offshore when winds whipped up about 3 p.m.

The boat's operator, Derek Lombardi, was pulling the couple in when the winch "let loose and they flew to the end of the line," according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating the incident with Clearwater police and the Coast Guard.

Once the line was fully extended, it snapped, the report shows.

Ladd, 31, was able to remove himself from his harness but fell to the water as he tried to help White remove hers, Clearwater police said.

Still in the harness, White was dragged to the ground, where she hit beach umbrellas and chairs before striking a 4-by-4 post for a volleyball net.

White's family declined to comment Tuesday. She works at the North Atlanta Chiropractic Center as a certified chiropractic assistant. She also does community involvement and works at the front desk. A woman who answered the phone at the office said that White was supposed to come to work today and that the office hadn't heard of the accident. She said White is a "lovely person."

Lombardi, who has not been charged, declined to comment. An investigation is ongoing.

He has a parasailing business registered with the city under the name Nutin Fancy Fishin Inc., which is also registered with the state. It was not clear Tuesday what the relationship is between Nutin Fancy Fishin and Sky Screamer Parasail.

• • •

A decade ago, Clearwater's harbormaster encouraged the Coast Guard to create standard operating procedures to govern parasailing operations, said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

"They were not interested in trying to regulate the industry, just provid(ing) voluntary guidelines to follow," Castelli said.

The Coast Guard declined numerous requests for comment.

In 2005, the Coast Guard recommended operators adopt procedures and guidelines created by the Professional Association of Parasail Operators, a self-regulating safety group.

In response, Clearwater made those guidelines a requirement for any parasailing companies housed at the city marina.

The guidelines say no parasailing should take place if a storm system is approaching within 7 miles, if sustained winds are above 20 mph, or if winds gusts are dangerous.

Ultimately, evaluating weather conditions is the job of the captain. On Sunday afternoon, the threat of the incoming weather was enough to send other parasailing operations back to shore.

Hale Wilson, owner of Eagle Parasail in Madeira Beach, said his crews stopped operations sometime between 2 and 2:30 p.m.

"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."

A large storm system, bringing dark clouds, lightning and heavy winds loomed off the Clearwater coast for several hours before White and Ladd were injured.

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

But the weather didn't pick up until minutes before the accident.

At 2:48, winds were around 6 mph at Clearwater Beach. Gusts weren't much higher.

In the next six minutes — by 2:54 p.m. — winds jumped to about 22 mph. By 3 p.m., gusts were near 35.

Scattered showers and thunderstorms were about 8 miles away from the beach at that time, said Daniel Noah, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

• • •

Former state Sen. Jim Se­besta, R-St. Petersburg, proposed legislation tightening regulation on the industry. He did it three years in a row, most recently in 2006. Each attempt failed.

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

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, whose district covers the area where the weekend accident occurred, said the problem was the bill never had a sponsor in the Florida House.

"It doesn't mean it was a bad bill," he said. "As you move through the session, you start looking through legislation …and you can only (work on) so many bills. Because it doesn't have a House bill, it sort of dies."

While Jones said he's not for more government, when it involves safety he thinks there should be annual licensing. The standards of the parasail safety group would be fine, he said, but the licensing would help require a minimum level of insurance, too.

• • •

Commercial parasailing has been around since the mid 1970s, said McCulloh, who invented the earliest contemporary parasailing platform.

Since he began tracking parasailing accidents in 1980, roughly 325 people nationwide have died or been injured, McCulloh said.

Florida has had about 15 fatalities during that time, he said.

In one high-profile case from the 1990s, a New York man died after a Clearwater Beach parasail operator cut a tow rope when high winds pulled the boat backward to the point it was taking on water.

The tow line became entangled around George "Eddie" Meyers' leg and dragged him more than 435 feet across a construction site where he hit concrete sewer pipes, cars and fences.

The boat operator was not criminally cited, but Meyers' family ultimately won a civil judgment in excess of $4 million from the company's insurer.

In 2001, a mother and her 13-year-old daughter were killed in Fort Myers when their tow line broke during bad weather.

Three years later, two teenagers visiting from Georgia were rescued by beachgoers in Madeira Beach when their tow line snapped in high winds and sent them careening over condominiums and hotels.

Three years later, a teenage girl died after a parasailing accident in South Florida.

• • •

While high winds may be deemed responsible for most parasailing accidents, McCulloh pointed to another culprit: the operator.

"We're looking at the line break as the problem. No, it's the guy who watches a storm front come in, decides to go out, taking a chance," said McCulloh, who is not involved in the Clearwater Beach investigation.

McCulloh said greater oversight could prevent injuries.

"The penalties for breaking the rules are not severe enough," he said. "There are not enough consequences for doing something wrong."

The Coast Guard, which already inspects boats and issues captains' licenses, could easily expand to endorse parasailing on the licenses, he said.

In Florida's parasailing fatalities, McCulloh said, he knows of only one captain who has lost his license. Many, he said, are never charged.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Despite numerous tragedies, parasailing industry still lacks oversight 09/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 11:46am]
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