Coast Guard to weigh in on first regulations after parasailing deaths

The (Myrtle Beach) Sun NewsSeptember 22, 2009 

  • If you go

    What: Formal U.S. Coast Guard hearing into fatal parasail accident at Ocean Isle Beach

    When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday through Friday

    Where: Courtroom 402, New Hanover, N.C., County Courthouse

— The U.S. Coast Guard said Monday it may submit recommendations for the first-ever regulation of the parasail industry as part of its investigation into an Aug. 28 parasail accident at Ocean Isle Beach that killed two women.

Cynthia Woodcock, 60, of Kernersville, N.C., and Lorrie Shoup, 54, of Granby, Colo., died after the line connecting their parasail to a tow boat snapped and a gust of wind slammed the two women into the ocean before snagging on the Ocean Isle fishing pier.

The Coast Guard has scheduled three days of formal hearings into the accident this week in Wilmington, N.C.

National parasail experts say the industry needs to be regulated and feel that the Coast Guard would have the most resources to do so.

Lt. Chester Warren, lead investigator into the incident and assistant chief of the prevention division of the 5th District Coast Guard Headquarters in Portsmouth, Va., said Monday that his decision on whether to call for regulations will be made after he reviews the facts of the case.

The decision will be based on his investigation as well as on accounts of other parasail accidents over the years, he said.

"We will consider everything," he said, specifically citing winches, the sails and the size of the tow rope.

The National Transportation Safety Board is testing and analyzing the parasailing chute, harness, towline and associated equipment in the Ocean Isle tragedy, according to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard assistant commandant for marine safety, security and stewardship issued a safety alert to the parasailing industry Thursday, the Coast Guard reported in a news release Monday.

"The alert strongly reminds the parasailing industry, its vessel owners, operators and shore side personnel to be vigilant in their observations of current and forecasted weather and sea conditions with particular attention to wind speed," the release said.

Three other people have died this year in the U.S. and Mexico as a result of parasail accidents, said Arrit McPherson, president of the Professional Association of Parasail Operators.

In an accident in Hawaii this year, McPherson said a parasailer was dragged across a parking lot and his leg was torn from his body after his parasail broke free of its tow rope. The man died from his injuries, McPherson said.

Eyewitnesses to the accident on Ocean isle Beach said the two women's sail apparently was caught in a downdraft after their tow rope broke and the women were slammed into the ocean several times, once hitting the tow boat as it was trying to rescue them, before becoming entangled in the Ocean Isle fishing pier.

The N.C. State Medical Examiners Office ruled the two women died of blunt trauma that may have happened on the initial impact with the water, hitting the tow boat or being thrown against the pier.

McPherson and Mark McCulloh, chairman of the Parasail Safety Council, said from the reports they'd read that weather might have been a factor.

A rapidly weakening Tropical Storm Danny far out to sea was causing heavy swells, and a low-pressure system moving across the area had prompted the National Weather Service to issue three small-craft advisories earlier in the day.

Warren said he expects eight to nine witnesses to testify during the hearing and that it possibly could be concluded in two days.

Some of the witnesses may testify by telephone.

Warren said he has been given a deadline of February to complete his report but hopes to have it done earlier.

He said once his work is done, the report and potential recommendations for regulation will be sent to U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before it is released to the public.

The hearings are open to the public, but Warren said the audience may not comment.

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