Parasailing Accidents Raise Questions About Safety

Despite concerns, parasailing is safer than roller coasters.

September 9, 2012, 9:21 PM

Sept. 9, 2012— -- On a hot summer day five years ago, 15-year-old Amber May White and her sister, Crystal, 17, on holiday in Pompano Beach, Florida, did what millions of vacationers do. They went parasailing.

While the girls were aloft being whirled around behind a speedboat, the weather quickly turned nasty. Ominous, dark clouds formed on the horizon to the west and came pressing in, fanned by suddenly gusty winds. Witnesses say they heard the girls yelling to be brought downs but, for some reason, the boat kept going.

Then in one horrifying instant the tow line suddenly snapped, untethering the parasail. The wind whipped up, snatched the chute the girls were attached to and, as if they were in a gigantic slingshot, hurled Amber May and Crystal into the roof of a waterside hotel.

Amber May died of her injuries. Her older sister survived but suffered permanent brain damage.

"I lost my child and my other child will never be the same," said the girls' mother, Shannon Kraus. "I don't believe it was an accident. I believe I was negligence. It was pretty obvious right away they were using substandard equipment because the rope broke."

Kraus sued the parasail operator. Her lawyer says she reached an out of court settlement.

Last month, almost five years to the day of Kraus's daughters' accident and not far from where it occurred, there was another parasailing accident. A 28- year-old Connecticut woman was parasailing in tandem with her husband when she somehow slipped out of the harness attaching her to the chute. She fell 150 feet to the water below and was killed.

According to a group called the Parasail Safety Council, in the past three decades, 429 people have been seriously injured parasailing in the United States. Seventy-two people died, most of them drowning after landing in water and becoming entangled in the chutes and ropes. Mishaps involving someone slipping free from the harness are extremely rare, the group said.

"Actually there are more injuries in roller coasters than there are in parasailing," said Mark McCuloh, head of the council and one of the pioneers of U.S. parasailing.

But unlike roller coasters -- and probably little known to the public -- there are no governmental regulations for safety inspections of the parasailing equipment. There are no mandatory requirements for maintenance and retirement of the tow lines, chutes or harnesses, according to the council.

"There's no mandated rule that a person has to change his rope at a certain cycle period or change a canopy at a certain cycle period or even change a harness or any of the equipment," McCuloh said.

In Florida, where roughly 240 parasailing operators are in business, Kraus and several state legislators have pressed for parasailing safety regulations. For the past four years, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere.

The Federal Aviation Administration has some jurisdiction over parasailing. Parasails are considered "heavy kites," and as such there are limits on how high they can go and how close they can be to an active airport. But the FAA does not insect the equipment.

Shortly after the latest fatal accident, ABC News joined a parasailing outing leaving from Belmar, N.J. On the way out to sea, the boat's operator, Tom Brown, briefed the half dozen vacationers on board about the day's venture and what to do if anything wen awry.

Brown said he's been in the business 27 years and never had a mishap.

Several of the people about to parasail said they had heard of the Florida accident a few days earlier but were undetected.

"I feel it's 100 percent safe," said one teenaged boy about to parasail for the second time in his life.

A short while later, he was aloft, dangling about 100 feet above the ocean. Afterward, he pronounced his adventure great fun.

The Parasailing Safety Council estimates that there have been 137 million rides in this country in the last 30 years. Accidents are rare. Fatalities are extremely rare.

But sometimes things can wrong; sometimes -- as happened to Amber May White -- tragically wrong because of what her mother insists was a failure of equipment that no safety regulator had ever laid eyes on.

"People keep dying. People keep getting injured," she said. "I'm angered."

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