Hearing: Parasail captain surprised by wind

Testimony details effort to save women tossed by gusts

The (Myrtle Beach) Sun NewsSeptember 24, 2009 

— Cynthia Woodcock and Lorrie Shoup were just minutes into their parasail adventure at Ocean Isle Beach on Aug. 28 when the wind suddenly and viciously picked up, a tow boat captain testified Wednesday during a U.S. Coast Guard hearing into the women's deaths.

Capt. Thomas Provazan, one of three witnesses to testify Tuesday, said the wind increased two or three times from an estimated 10 to 12 knots in a matter of seconds. Its force was stronger than the power of the boat's winch that futilely tried to reel the women in on a line that extended more than 400 feet from the boat.

The force of the wind in the parasail quickly overpowered even the boat's engine and began dragging the vessel backward. Desperate attempts to maneuver the boat to compensate for the wind and create slack in the line didn't work, and the ocean threatened to swamp the boat.

Then, the line snapped and Woodcock and Shoup toppled to the sea. Both died of blunt trauma, according to the N.C. Medical Examiner's Office.

Testimony on the tragedy began Wednesday and is expected to last three days. Other witnesses Wednesday were Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer John Feuerbach, who inspected the boat in March, and Barrett McMullan, president of N.C. Watersports, which leased the boat from Ocean Isle Beach Watersports, of which McMullan also is president.

Provazan is scheduled to finish his testimony this morning and will be followed by Chris Eckert, his mate on the boat.

Also scheduled to testify are a meteorologist from the National Weather Service and several of the eight to 10 other passengers who were on the boat when the accident happened.

Provazan and McMullan testified they separately checked the weather forecast that day and heard or saw no reason to cancel parasailing trips.

Neither said whether they were aware the National Weather Service had issued three small-craft advisories earlier in the day. McMullan said personal observations of the conditions were more important in deciding whether trips should be canceled.

Forecasts, he said, frequently are wrong. But his boats do not go out in wind stronger than 20 knots, he said.

The trip that turned tragic was the third that day for Provazan, and two other customers had successful flights on the same trip when Woodcock and Shoup died.

Provazan said he saw no signs of the wind that surprised him on the second flight in the day's 1 p.m. trip and he believes the storm may have formed directly overhead.

Witnesses to the incident, though, have said it was played out before a background of black storm clouds.

The atmosphere on the boat became chaotic as the trip turned quickly into a rescue mission, Provazan said.

At one point, he said, Eckert tried to jump from the rapidly moving boat onto the parasail to deflate it. When that failed, Provazan said he caught up with the women again and grabbed the parasail ropes as the women dangled outside the boat just a foot or two from him.

He said he detected no movement from them and believed both were unconscious.

But he couldn't he maintain his grip and the wind carried the women over the boat. He quickly retrieved Eckert from the water, he said, and gunned the boat to get just in front of the women one more time.

Eckert jumped into the water again, this time with a knife to try to cut the women from the sail, Provazan testified.

That, too, was unsuccessful.

Provazan said he watched the women descend after the tow rope snapped and believes they would have survived their first contact with the ocean.

But Jay Jenkins, a witness from Maryland who watched the tragedy from shore and pulled one of the women from the surf at the Ocean Isle fishing pier, said that day that he thought the women hit the water hard enough the first time to break their necks.

One had a broken neck, the medical examiner's office said. The other had a broken back.

Lt. Chester Warren, lead investigator for the Coast Guard, said the testimony is only a part of the evidence he will consider before rendering judgment on what caused the tragedy.

He possibly will include recommendations for regulation of the parasail industry.

"In most cases, there's not one thing that causes accidents," he said. "There's a list of things."

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