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Crowd rescues parasailers

Two terrified teens escape unharmed when a group of beachgoers reel them in after their parasail rope snaps.

Published April 9, 2004

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MADEIRA BEACH - The two teenage girls were just minutes into their parasail ride Thursday when they heard a snap.

They looked toward the dark green waters below. The tow rope had broken and they were no longer attached to the parasail boat.

The wind carried them higher, toward land. They were careening above high-rise condominiums and hotels along Gulf Boulevard.

Bobbing in the wind, 15-year-old Chelsea Waddell sobbed. Her best friend, 16-year-old Theresa Blanford, started screaming.

"Help!" she shouted.

The girls screamed with everything they had - shrill, high-pitched cries for help.

Somewhere on the beach, a woman saw the rope and grabbed it. Before long, men and women were coming from all directions, jumping toward the rope, clutching it at different parts. About 50 to 100 people held the rope, guiding it back to shore.

The incident was a harrowing a reminder of the occasional perils of parasailing.

In December 1990, a New York security guard died when a boat operator cut the line to his parasail as winds became too strong. The parasail rope wrapped around his leg and dragged him across Clearwater Beach, a construction site and several parked cars before toppling him head-first onto a tennis court.

In 2001, a 13-year-old girl and her mother were killed when a parasail harness broke, dropping them more than 20 stories to the shallows of Fort Myers Beach.

Parasail boats and operators are inspected and regulated by the Coast Guard, but there are no inspection requirements for parasail equipment such as harnesses and tow lines.

Thursday's events involved two Georgia teenagers who arrived at the beach last week.

Chelsea Waddell's father, Don Waddell, is general manager of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team. He arrived for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. Since then, his wife, Cheryl, and the two teenage girls have been relaxing in the family's cottage on Madeira Beach.

The girls wanted to go parasailing. They had sailed last year with a local company, Get Wet Watersports. They enjoyed the thrill, flying high, looking for dolphins as they tossed in the wind. They scheduled an appointment for Thursday afternoon.

About 12:15 p.m., the Waddells drove the girls to the business on Madeira Beach. It was windy, and Cheryl Waddell had not seen many people parasailing. She said she repeatedly asked company employees whether it was safe. Yes, they assured her.

Usually, the Waddells ride along to watch their daughter parasail. But on Thursday, the boat was full. So the couple decided to ride to Indian Rocks Beach. Their daughter had gone parasailing about six times. She'd be fine, they thought. The girls headed out into the gulf. There were about 10 people in the boat, and the girls were selected to fly first, they said. Wearing bathing suits and life jackets, they lifted into the air, Chelsea on the left, Theresa on the right.

Within seconds, the equipment began to creak, the girls said.

"Get me down," Theresa said aloud.

The wind was strong, pushing them left and right.

Suddenly, they heard a snap.

The impact jerked Chelsea partially out of her seat. The wind lifted them higher. They floated above telephone lines and high-rise condominiums.

Chelsea started crying.

"It will be okay," Theresa told her best friend.

Along the beach, dozens of people began clutching the rope. Several people lined Gulf Boulevard in case the girls fell toward the ground, they said. A tourist began filming on a portable camera.

"The pressure of the air in the sail was tremendous," Scott Eagers said. "It was awesome seeing the whole beach react. Everybody didn't even think, they just ran down, grabbed the rope, and started hauling those girls down."

Somehow, the crowd managed to pull the girls safely around a row of telephone poles toward Madeira Beach.

As Chelsea sobbed, Theresa yelled down to the crowd: "What should we do?"

"Land on your feet," someone shouted.

Slowly, the girls drifted to shore. A sea of arms reached toward them, drawing them safely down. The crowd pulled them out of the parasail gear, and a woman embraced them.

"Thank you, thank you," the girls said.

Several minutes later, Chelsea dialed her father's cell phone.

"Dad, don't freak out..." she began.

By sunset Thursday, the tears had stopped, and the family was wondering what had gone wrong.

Employees of the parasail company did not apologize to the family or explain what happened, Don Waddell said.

A woman who answered a phone at the company said no one was available to talk about the incident. She said the parasail instructors would likely issue a statement later this week.

"We heard that none of the other businesses were parasailing because it was so windy," Don Waddell said. "You trust that people know their business."

After the girls were reunited with the Waddells, they returned to thank their rescuers.

"We are so lucky, so very lucky that people responded and helped," Don Waddell said.

His wife said they will keep in touch with authorities to figure out what went wrong, and to try and make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office took a report of the incident, and forwarded the investigation to the U.S. Coast Guard.

As for the girls, they vow never to parasail again.

"Thank God for all those people," Chelsea said. "Thank God for them."

- Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455. Send e-mail to

[Last modified April 9, 2004, 01:50:54]

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