GMA: Parasailing Throws Caution to Wind

May 8, 2001 -- It sounds like a thrilling ride in the sky: Carried aloft by a wing-shaped parachute and pulled along by a powerboat, you are flying over the water like a bird.

And parasailing can indeed be a smooth sailing experience.

The Parasail Safety Council estimates there are 1,300 parasailing operators worldwide, generating $250 million in gross revenues annually. Rides generally cost between $35 and $50 a pop.

The Fun Has a 'Dark Side'

But as Good Morning America's Consumer Correspondent Greg Hunter discovered, the fun can end quickly if things go wrong.

There have been several accidents involving parasailing recently: Three friends in Florida had a near-death experience while parasailing; a father and daughter were forced to bail out in the middle of the ocean; and a Michigan woman was nearly blown away in the Bahamas.

Even within the parasailing industry, the question has arisen: Are these simply freak accidents, or is there a problem?

"There's a dark side to parasailing that the normal customer doesn't understand," says Mark McCulloh, a parasailing expert.

The industry is not regulated and there is no organization that oversees operators. And, says McCulloh, there are too many unsafe operators.

"Money and greed play a very, very big role," he said.

Runaway Parasail Turns Deadly

LaNita Walker says it's even worse than that: "I see it as a dangerous industry, waiting for more people to die."

Walker's 26-year-old daughter, Tosha Walker of Upper Marlborough, Md., was parasailing with a friend in bad weather in the Bahamas when the tow rope connecting them to the boat broke.

"She started screaming hysterically that, 'We're going to die! We're going to die!'" Walker says.

The runaway parasail dragged Tosha and her friend through the water.

"Tosha could not see the waves coming," says Walker. "[Her friend] kept calling to her, and she answered a couple of times, and then she didn't answer anymore."

The friend survived, but Tosha Walker did not. She is now buried in Charlotte, N.C.

"I can't find anybody to take responsibility for this," says Walker. "You know, I can't find anybody to say, 'Well, we're going to fix this.'"

Lack of Safety Oversight

But the problems do not happen only in other countries.

"The misconception is that, yeah, the Bahamas and most other countries outside the U.S. are bad," McCulloh says. "But it's just as bad here in the U.S."

The U.S. Coast Guard has recorded 76 parasailing accidents in the United States between 1995 and 1999, with 61 injuries. But McCulloh believes the actual toll may be twice as high, because so many accidents go unreported.

While the Coast Guard licenses commercial boats and operators in the United States, officials say it has no direct authority to regulate parasailing.

McCulloch confirms that no one inspects the lines and other equipment or tests the parasailing operators to see if they know what they are doing.

Not-So-Smooth Sailing

In one recent case, three friends were parasailing in Clearwater, Fla., when their tow rope snapped. The men were blown above some nearby condominiums, but amazingly, they were not seriously injured.

Now, however, they want the operator, Parasail City, to pay for their ordeal and they hired McCulloh to investigate.

McCulloh says that Parasail City ignored the dark sky and the dangerous wind conditions that were present when the trio went parasailing. Just before the men took their turn, he says a worker on the boat told them, "Guys, we ain't gonna be able to give you a free fall today, we've got too much wind out here."

McCulloh went out on a Parasail City boat and he also asked about the company's safety record: "How's the safety record, pretty good?" he recalls asking. "'One hundred percent,'" was the reply.

"One hundred percent, never had any accidents?" McCulloh says. "That's pretty damned good for 100,000 rides a year."

Hunter and a camera crew recently visited Parasail City. They brought a home video camera and did not tell the parasail operators that they were with ABCNEWS.

When Hunter asked if there had been any injuries or mishaps in recent years, an unidentified worker told him no.

"Way back when [in] Mexico, you know, there's been a few problems when they first started doing it," the worker said. "But I've been here for five years and there hasn't been one problem I've heard of."

When Hunter went parasailing, with a different operator, he did something that most vacationers could not do: A safety check. McCulloh helped him evaluate the equipment and weather conditions before Hunter flew.

Hunter's conclusion? If everyone could take their own safety expert along, they could have the same adrenaline rush from parasailing — with a lot less risk.

Hunter later went back and asked Parasail City for comment on his investigation. The worker he originally talked to said he was not aware of the past accident. He declined further comment.

Walker warns that the risks will remain, unless and until parasail operators and their equipment are held to a higher standard.

"My daughter's life is gone, I know she would want me to fix this," she says. "I know she would want me to fix this so somebody else's child doesn't have to lose their life."

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