Parasail deaths renew rules talk
By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times,
At 100 pounds, she proved light enough for the wind to carry her close to shore, where she nearly struck a hotel.
On Thursday, as her 11-year-old son hoped for a parasail ride during their stay at Clearwater Beach, news of a deadly accident Wednesday in Fort Myers Beach gave her second thoughts.
"I hate to hold a kid back from doing something he was looking forward to," Mrs. Driscoll said.
The parasailing industry, regulated by little more than the weather-reading faculties of its boat captains, was facing fresh scrutiny on Thursday, the day after a mother and her 13-year-old daughter fell 200 feet to their deaths after their parasail harness broke.
Some industry watchers predict the incident will bring a turning point for parasailing: Either operators will agree to self-imposed rules, or the government will step in.
"This accident, this tragedy, is going to get everybody ready to listen," said Mark McCulloh, chairman of the Parasail Safety Council, a national safety advisory group based in Orlando.
McCulloh plans to travel to Fort Myers Beach today, where he will aid the U.S. Coast Guard investigation by examining equipment used in the parasail accident.
Lisabeth Hope Bailey-Straney, 37, and Taylor Straney, 13, visiting Fort Myers from Vine Grove, Ky., died of massive internal injuries after their 20-story fall into shallow water.
"It was like they fell on concrete," Dr. Rebecca Hamilton, Lee County's acting medical examiner, said Thursday. "It looks like they fell 250 feet into about 7 or 8 feet of water."
Coast Guard Lt. Steve Ward, chief of environmental operations for the agency's Marine Safety Office in Tampa, said the investigation will look at the company's maintenance records, equipment condition, weather conditions, history of accidents and other elements.
Wednesday's accident was the second in two years involving the same employees of a Fort Myers Beach parasailing business. Fort Myers Beach officials Thursday suspended the operating license of the parasail company, AA Parasail.
The accident brought concern from several areas that offer parasailing, including Pinellas County, which has about a dozen parasailing companies, more than any other Florida county, McCulloh said.
Most Pinellas operators refused to discuss the Fort Myers Beach accident, saying the media use such incidents to portray parasailing as dangerous and deadly. Those who would discuss their safety policies say they are cautious and cancel parasailing runs at the first indication of bad weather.
Sunny Snyder, who captained a Pinellas parasailing boat until last year, estimates he "flew" 60,000 to 70,000 parasailors in his eight years on the job.
He said a captain must consider a number of variables: the safety of his equipment, the weight of the parasailor, plus the wind and any approaching lightning storms.
On Thursday afternoon in Clearwater, Madeira Beach and St. Pete Beach, most parasail trips were canceled amid westerly winds that reached 15 mph.
"You've got somebody's life up there in your hands, and you've always got to be thinking about it," Snyder said.
In Fort Myers Beach on Wednesday, the accident occurred at 12:30 p.m. as a storm approached, whipping up waves and pelting the sand with a heavy downpour.
Ward of the Coast Guard said that beyond ensuring boat captains are licensed, his agency has little oversight of the parasailing industry. No special training is required for parasail operators, and the responsibility falls to business owners to ensure that their captains know how to use the equipment.
"It falls under the judgment, really, of the captain," Ward said. "There's really no formal rule. Being licensed, that person is responsible for the operation of the vessel and the people on board."
McCulloh of the Parasail Safety Council wants the Coast Guard to endorse rules recommended by his group. He thinks parasail operators can continue to police themselves, as long as they have guidelines for equipment and weather.
Boat captains make decisions on safety
It's a competitive business.
On Clearwater Beach, tourists can choose from a variety of parasailing businesses. But there also are sunset cruises, dolphin-watching excursions and personal watercraft rentals.
A parasail ride costs $40 to $65, depending on the company and the length of the towline. The longer the line, the bigger the thrill, the higher the price.
"What we're against is an operator willing to take that extra step because they need a little extra money," McCulloh said. "Simply put, we will support operators who choose safety over profit and promote parasailing in a safe manner."
Rory Westlund, a boat captain who occasionally sails a parasail boat for his friend's business, Parasail City in Clearwater, said "safety is the No. 1 concern" for most parasail operators.
He also said each captain makes his own decision and is not influenced by a neighboring parasail business that continues to operate in bad weather.
McCulloh, a former parasail operator, says his old colleagues consider him something of a "traitor."
"I wanted to work with Clearwater to form a task force with operators, but after the accident, that chilled for a while," said McCulloh, referring to a 1999 incident in which a towline snapped. Three members of a Long Island, N.Y., baseball team sailed over the top of the 20-story Crescent Beach Club before dropping into the Gulf of Mexico. The men survived.
"The operators don't want to talk to me," McCulloh said. "These guys are running around scared right now because they're wanting to protect themselves."
Victims were on another mother-daughter vacation
Bailey-Straney, who was known to family and friends as Hope, was widely known in Vine Grove, a community near Fort Knox, about 25 miles south of Louisville.
The family owns the Lincoln Trail Country Club in Vine Grove.
"Hope ran the (country club) restaurant and everyone loved her," said Bobby Bridges, who works in the pro shop. "She was as nice as can be."
Country club employees and members are devastated, Bridges said.
The mother and daughter often took mother-daughter trips.
On this vacation, they were joined by Bailey-Straney's elder daughter, Kristin Bailey, 18, from Lawrenceville, Ga., and Kristin's friend, Katherine Glackin, 18, from Radcliff, Ky. The two teenagers were in the tow boat when the harness separated from the parasail.
The Straneys' accident is also the second time employees of the parasailing company have been involved in a fatal fall.
Edward Iddon, 36, an employee of CRS Beach Service, fell more than 100 feet to his death in 1999 when a parasailing harness tore at the seam as he was towed by a Jeep near Bunche Beach in Lee County. A sheriff's investigator said at the time that a harness seem ripped in that accident.
After the accident, the company transferred its parasailing license to another company, AA Parasail, which employs some of the same people.
-- Times staff writer Robin Mitchell contributed to this report, which used information from the Fort Myers News-Press and Associated Press.
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