South Carolina

September 3, 2009

Parasailing deaths in Ocean Isle Beach spur call for rules

The parasail accident that killed two women in Ocean Isle Beach Friday highlights the lack of regulation in an industry that insiders say needs it.

Depending on the outcome of an investigation, no regulation may have prevented Friday's tragedy.

Cynthia Woodcock of Kernersville, N.C., and Lorrie Shoup of Granby, Colo., were killed when a tow rope attaching the parasail to a boat snapped and the sail was caught in an apparent downburst of wind.

Parasail association executives on both coasts say regulations would give the U.S. Coast Guard or other enforcement agencies the power to order owners to cease operations or to penalize those who don't follow the rules.

Formal regulations also may cause parasail boat captains and operators who've become complacent about safety to think twice or more when they do or don't do a host of things, said Mark McCulloh, chairman of the Parasail Safety Council.

It's too early in the investigation to make solid judgments about what went wrong on Friday in Ocean Isle Beach.

Woodcock and Shoup were being towed by a boat from N.C. Watersports when the weekend incident occurred.

Roy Tresk, a Brunswick County attorney who represents N.C. Watersports and operator Barrett McMullan, said Wednesday that the McMullan family extends its condolences to the victims' families.

Tresk said it would be premature to make any statements until the Coast Guard's investigation is completed.

Lt. Gene Maestas, external affairs officer for the Coast Guard's 5th District, said because of the deaths, the status of the investigation has been elevated to a district formal investigation that is being handled by the 5th District Headquarters in Portsmouth, Va.

The Marine Safety Unit at the Wilmington Coast Guard Station will assist in the investigation, which likely will be meticulous and detailed.

It is expected to take weeks to complete.

Among specific things likely to come under scrutiny are the tow rope thickness, the presence or lack thereof of salt buildup on the rope, the size of the parasail that was used, exactly where the connecting rope snapped, decisions made by operators and the boat captain, attempts to avert tragedy once the incident had begun, anything the women might have said to encourage the outing if the captain appeared reluctant to take them and the weather conditions that day.

The Coast Guard knows now that the National Weather Service had issued three small-craft warnings that day, the first at 3:29 a.m. and the last at 12:07 p.m., about two hours before the fatal incident.

The National Weather Service had tracked a low pressure system that moved north from the Gulf of Mexico that day.

Conditions in the ocean were compounded by a rapidly weakening Tropical Storm Danny, far out to sea but close enough to cause rip currents. Ocean Isle Beach's Beach Patrol had been on the strand that day to warn people not to go into the water, said C.D. Blythe, the town's mayor pro tem.

Eyewitnesses said the wind at the time of the tragedy was like that of a nor'easter, which can be significant. They said the unfolding scene at sea was captured against a background of dark black storm clouds. The same eyewitnesses, husband and wife Jay and C.J. Jenkins of Maryland, saw the entire incident and called the boat driver's efforts to rescue the women heroic.

The Weather Service issues small-craft advisories when winds of 25 knots and 6-foot seas are expected or happening, said Mark Bacon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C.

McCulloh said that from what he's seen so far, the investigation may well hinge on the weather and how it played in the events.

"Any prudent captain could see the storm coming," said McCulloh. "That's the point that's going to be argued."

He emphasized that his thoughts are based on accounts he's read from newspapers on the Internet and that they could change as evidence emerges.

Parasail equipment is manufactured to take thousands of pounds of weight, including that put on it by the wind. Because of other factors that may be involved, though, it is difficult at best to say what wind speed would cause a line to snap, said McCulloh and Arrit McPherson, president of the Professional Association of Parasail Operators.

McCulloh, who invented the parasail wench in 1974, is in favor of a regulated industry, as is McPherson.

Based in San Diego, McPherson said he believes that regulations can be written to both protect customers and allow owners to thrive.

McCulloh, who is Florida-based, said he has counted 70 deaths from 350 parasailing accidents in the last 30 years. He also has testified in lawsuits resulting from many of those, and McPherson said he is recognized as an expert on the industry.

The Coast Guard, though, will not look to make recommendations for regulation as part of its investigation, Maestas said. The U.S. government does not regulate parasailing (nor do any state governments), and it is not the Coast Guard's job to recommend that it should regulate parasailing.

On the other hand, McPherson said, the Coast Guard would be the best watchdog for any regulations because it has more assets than many state regulatory agencies, and its presence would assure even enforcement throughout the country.

Some Florida legislators have been trying to write regulations for three years, McCulloh and McPherson said, and both have been assisting.

It might be hard statistically to rank the dangers of parasailing with that of other things, but McPherson acknowledged it is an inherently dangerous pastime. Accidents happen.

"But," he added, "hundreds of operators have operated safely for decades."

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