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Parasailing mom, daughter fall to deaths

A harness breaks. The two visitors to Fort Myers from Kentucky plunge more than 20 stories.

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2001

A harness breaks. The two visitors to Fort Myers from Kentucky plunge more than 20 stories.

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

Several witnesses, including a second daughter aboard the tow boat, watched in horror as the two dropped into thigh-deep water.

"The parachute twisted three times, flying up, but the women started falling," said Klaus Westerville, 46, of South Carolina.

Lisabeth Hope Bailey-Straney, 37, and her daughter, Taylor Straney, of Vine Grove, Ky., were killed in the accident.

As the mother and daughter crashed into 3 feet of surf, a witness rushed into the water to help.

"The young girl moved her hands and her lips, but she couldn't say anything," said Chris Liberis, 50, vacationing from Germany. "It was obvious that she was in a lot of pain."

Lisabeth Straney was unconscious, he said. Liberis dragged the Straneys out of the water.

The accident happened at 12:30 p.m. as a storm approached, whipping up waves and pelting the sand with a heavy downpour.

"I turned to my wife and said, 'There are people parasailing, I can't believe it, this is no day to be parasailing,' " said Westerville, who was watching the rainbow-colored parachute from a hotel room.

Suddenly, a gust swept up the parachute, and the women were in trouble. The mother's older daughter, 18-year-old Kristin Bailey, watched in horror from the tow boat.

Next door at his Sandrac condominium, a neighbor called Clark Shedden to point out the people parasailing. "Look outside," the neighbor said. "It looks like a parasailor is having trouble."

"Just as I looked up, the rope broke, falling in an arc-like shape," Shedden said. "One of the women was horizontal, she was flailing. It was like she just fell from the sky."

Scott Siddon, captain of the 20-foot boat Hang 'Em High was trying to reel the pair back down to the boat when high winds hit.

Lisabeth Straney died at Lee Memorial Hospital. Taylor died at HealthPark Medical Center, said Lt. Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The Straneys were vacationing from Vine Grove, Ky., south of Fort Knox and Louisville. Keena Straney, Lisabeth Straney's husband and Taylor's father, is co-owner of the Lincoln Trail Country Club in Vine Grove. He was en route to Fort Myers Beach on Wednesday night.

"It was a parasailing accident, apparently due to harness failure and deteriorating weather conditions," Morse said.

Wildlife Conservation Commission agents were investigating, he said, looking closely at the harness and the sudden squall at the time of the fall.

Parasailing operations are largely unregulated by state, federal or local agencies, though the Coast Guard's Office of Marine Safety and Environmental Protection requires commercial parasail boat drivers to hold a Coast Guard license.

In the spring, the Coast Guard proposed regulations and guidelines for commercial parasail winchboat operators that would set safety standards and require at least two weeks of training.

The Orlando-based Parasail Safety Council, which was organized in 1998, also has proposed safety guidelines. Its Web site says there are 12 to 20 parasailing deaths in the world annually, with 200 to 500 injuries requiring hospitalization.

Parasail Safety Council founder Mark McCulloh offered to work with Clearwater to craft safety guidelines and training after a 1999 Sand Key parasailing accident.

In October of that year, three members of a Long Island baseball team, in Clearwater for a tournament, were aloft over the Intracoastal Waterway when their tow line snapped and they dangled in harnesses attached to the runaway parasail.

A strong wind filled the parasail and swept it away from the towboat and toward Sand Key. They cleared the top of the 20-story Crescent Beach Club by about 15 feet and dropped into the Gulf of Mexico near the beach.

An American tourist died off Nassau in August 1999 when a parasail towrope broke in a squall and dropped her and a man 70 feet.

A month earlier, a man parasailing in south Lee County died when the harness attaching him to the vehicle broke and he fell more than 100 feet.

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

- Times staff writer Robin Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes information from the Fort Myers News-Press, Elizabethtown (Ky.) News-Enterprise and the Associated Press.

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