Young woman's death puts spotlight on parasailing
There are no Florida state or federal laws that apply to parasailing. There are no inspections, no training is required, and the equipment doesn't have to be in good order.
The Miami Herald
MIAMI — Kathleen Mary Mulcahy Miskell began step-dancing when she was 3, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, worked in orphanages in Honduras and organized youth Irish football leagues. She helped teach middle-school children, was studying for a master's degree, was married and just bought a new home.
She was the kind of woman who wanted to taste everything, said her father, James Mulcahy, a retired widower from Manchester, Conn., who helped raise Kathleen, 28, and her older sister, Erin, 30, after their mother died 12 years ago.
So when Miskell had the chance to try parasailing while vacationing in South Florida this week, she called her father to tell him how excited she and her husband, Stephen, 31, were about the prospect of floating weightlessly above the ocean.
Somewhere over the Atlantic on Wednesday afternoon, Kathleen Miskell lost her wings.
"It was the last time I spoke to her," her father said.
While she was riding tandem with her husband on an excursion led by Waveblast Water Sports in Pompano Beach, authorities say, the harness that attached her to a bar, which in turn was connected to the sail, failed. And Miskell dropped some 200 feet — the equivalent of 20 stories — into the ocean, as her husband watched from his perch above.
She was found face down in the water, and attempts to revive her were unsuccessful.
As her family in Connecticut grieved Thursday, investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities began analyzing the accident. Government leaders and lawmakers also called — again — for regulation of an industry that, for decades, has managed to evade oversight.
In Florida, all you need to run a parasail business is a boat, some equipment, insurance and a licensed boat captain. After making a deal with a property owner to hang out a shingle, you're in business, earning $300,000 to $400,000 a year per boat, according to Mark McCulloh, who is considered the founding father of parasailing and chairman of the Parasail Safety Council.
There are no state or federal laws that apply to parasailing. There are no inspections, no training is required, and the equipment doesn't have to be in good order. A parasail operator doesn't even have to know how to operate a parasail before he or she opens a business.
Pompano Beach Mayor Lamar Fisher said his efforts to get lawmakers to regulate the industry "fell on deaf ears" when he unsuccessfully tried after the death of Amber White, 15, who was hurtled across the beach into a building when a wind gust snapped the line of her parasail in 2007.
Amber's aunt, Dina White, said the family has tried to get laws passed regulating safety, and started an online petition drive to raise awareness.
"It's a blind faith that someone has checked the equipment and knows what they are doing," she said.
State Sen. Gwen Margolis has proposed laws to help regulate the industry several times, but each year the measure gets "caught in some committee that handles tourism," and is opposed by lawmakers who believe it's "too much government."
According to the Parasail Safety Council, since 1982 there have been an estimated 130 million parasail rides with harnesses. Of those, 429 resulted in serious injuries and 72 deaths. In Florida, there have been six deaths, including Miskell's.
Miami lawyer Ira Leesfeld, whose work focuses on parasailing accidents, says opening a parasail concession is an easy and lucrative business to get into in Florida. And most visitors, he said, don't realize that it's unsafe.
Waveblast operates out of the Sands Harbor Hotel.
"There's no due diligence, no inspection. You just take your chances," Leesfeld said.
All authorities would say Thursday was that Miskell's death was the result of some sort of "malfunction."
McCulloh, who patented the sport more than 40 years ago, said "malfunction" basically "is a polite way of saying it wasn't the girl's fault." He said investigators are likely examining the harness to determine whether it was too large and Miskell slipped out, whether one or more clips weren't fastened, and any number of other things that may have gone wrong.
In a tandem ride, McCulloh said, the harness would be hooked to a tow bar attached to the parasail.
In order for the harness itself to break, the threading would have to give out or the nylon would have to be rotted.
Waveblast's owner, Zachary Chandler, would not comment, and calls and an email to his attorney were not returned.
"We run a very safe operation," said Waveblast employee Luke Galgano, after the boat was pulled out of the water 10 p.m. Wednesday. "We have the best equipment and this is just a freak accident that happened ... I'm sorry for the family, sorry for their loss."
Waveblast was closed for business on Thursday.