Tragedy puts spotlight on parasailing

Story by Julie K. Brown and Carli Teproff
Miami Herald
August 17, 2012
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MIAMI - Kathleen Mary Mulcahy Miskell began step-dancing when she was 3 years old, 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 Kathleen 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, like birds hoisted onto a giant circular kite in the sky.

But somewhere high above the Atlantic Ocean Wednesday afternoon, Kathleen Miskell lost her wings.

“It was the last time I spoke to her,” her father said, remembering his daughter’s call that morning.

While 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 helplessly from his perch above.

She was found face down in the water, and attempts to revive her were unsuccessful.

On Thursday, as her family in Connecticut grieved, investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the U.S. Coast Guard and other authorities began the task of analyzing the accident. Government leaders and lawmakers also called - once again - for regulation of an industry that, for decades, has managed to evade any oversight.

In fact, in Florida, all you need to run a parasail business is a boat, some equipment, insurance and a licensed boat captain. And after making a deal with a property owner to hang out a shingle somewhere, you’re in business, earning as much as $300,000 to $400,000 per 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 required and the equipment doesn’t even have to be in good order. And in truth, 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 following the death of 15-year-old Amber White, 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. They even started an online petition drive - www.rememberamber.com - 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, D-Sunny Isles Beach, 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 alone, there have been six fatalities, 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 because it’s often booked through a hotel.

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.”

“We are still trying to answer all of the questions,” said Carli Segelson of the FWC, which was interviewing witnesses Thursday.

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.

Records show Chandler has been in the parasail business since 2003, but has changed the name of his company several times. At one time, it was operating under the name Fort Lauderdale Parasail.

In Nov. 2011, David J. Nice sued Chandler and Waveblast Water Sports, saying Chandler never handed over the title and equipment Nice had paid for. The lawsuit claimed Chandler was hired to run the boat but instead placed the title under his own company’s name. The case was later dismissed.

The Miskells, who were married for three years, were on vacation before the start of school, staying with friends in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. On Wednesday, about 3 p.m., they boarded the company’s 28-foot open motor boat to take what the company’s brochure describes as a $30 thrilling ride “above the beautiful blue ocean.”

Their daytrip began about three-quarters of a mile off shore from Hillsborough Inlet, when the Miskells were reeled into the air.

The couple, the boat operator, Casey L. Fuller, and the mate, Jeffrey Zabadal, were the only ones on the boat, Segelson said.

Authorities could not say how long the couple were in the air, or how far out to sea they were when the accident happened. Stephen Miskell, a native of Ireland who runs a tile business, was interviewed by authorities, but investigators have not released what he saw happen, or whether he knew what led to the tragedy.

“He is still in shock,” said his father-in-law Thursday. “He’s still in Florida. We are making plans to return her to Connecticut.”

Mulcahy said his daughter met her future husband in the tightly knit Irish community in Hartford, and they both were members of the Irish-American Home Society of Glastonbury. His daughter graduated from St. Anselm College in Manchester and was an assistant teacher in the East Hartford School District. She was studying for her master’s degree with plans to become a guidance counselor.

Since a child, she performed Irish step-dancing in competitions up and down the East Coast. She won many trophies, and once danced with Eileen Ivers, star fiddler of the Riverdance company.

“She could sing, she was a beautiful singer,” her father said. “She was a fun person, she was shy but funny.”

Mary Lynch, a board member of the Irish Home Society who has known Miskell for 25 years, said her friend would put on a pair of dance shoes and never stop.

“She and her husband, Stephen, were so connected,” Lynch said. “Their friendship became a love story.”

The Miskells recently bought a house in nearby Wethersfield, a small, historic town just south of Hartford. Lynch said Kathleen was looking forward to holding family dinners in their new home, which they were renovating.

“They were looking forward to an adventure and unfortunately, the adventure went very bad,” Lynch said.

(Miami Herald reporters Maria Camila Bernal, Mary Ellen Klas, Diana Moskovitz and Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.)

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