In My Opinion

Parasailing deaths leave Tallahassee unmoved

Third-world stuff, we thought.

A friend of mine and I were talking about a horrible incident he had witnessed a few years ago while lounging on the beach at a Yucatan resort. A powerful gust of wind caught a flying parasail with a woman tethered beneath. The kite ripped free of the towline and flew into the upper floors of a beachfront hotel. The woman, still strapped to the apparatus, tumbled to her death.

We spoke as if the incident was something endemic to backward, unsophisticated places. We agreed: If you’re going to sign up for parasailing or bungee jumping or zip lines or some other potentially dangerous venture, better do it in the U.S., where you know that government regulators and insurers are looking out for your safety. Do it in Florida.

The website for the U.S. Consul General in Mexico seems to concur, warning: “Parasailing has killed U.S. citizen tourists who were dragged through palm trees or were slammed into buildings.” Local regulations and equipment reliability and liability insurance, the website warns, may not be up to modern U.S. standards.

But neither are Florida’s.

Off Pompano Beach on Wednesday, Kathleen Miskell was flying on a parasail 200 feet over the ocean when her harness failed.

No doubt Miskell, like me, had assumed state agents inspected the parasail equipment, licensed the operators and enforced a regime of strict safety regulations. For Miskell, it was a fatal assumption. She fell to her death.

“There are no regulations,” said state Sen. Dennis Jones. “Not one.”

Last year, 31-year-old David Richard Sieradzki, soaring above the waters off Longboat Key, fell from the sky when his tow boat suddenly decelerated. He drowned before the boat captain could retrieve him from the water.

The year before, the captain of a parasail boat in Clearwater assured Alejandra White, 27, that he could beat the approaching storm clouds. But after she was pulled aloft, a violent burst of wind severed the tow rope and propelled the kite, with the helpless White still attached, bouncing along the surface of the Gulf before she was finally dragged ashore. She lingered five days in a coma before dying.

White’s death led Sen. Jones, a Republican from Seminole, to introduce the Alejandra White Bill, which would codify common sense regulations and insurance requirements that most of us probably assume are already the law in Florida.

Jones’ bill did no better than the “Amber May” bill championed in 2007 by state Sen. Gwen Margolis of Sunny Isles after the horrific death of Amber May White, a 15-year-old kid from Summerville, off Pompano Beach. The operator had pulled the girl aloft despite high winds and an approaching thunderstorm. Amber May died after the winds hurled her parasail into a beachfront hotel.

Margolis told The Herald that her 2007 bill was snuffed out by powerful legislators who rail about over-regulation and “too much government.”

Jones’ legislation was similarly thwarted in both the 2011 and 2012 sessions. His bill would have instituted equipment standards. Among other common-sense rules, operators would not be allowed out when winds exceed 20 mph or when thunderstorms are imminent or when visibility is limited. No more than three customers could be towed from a single boat. They would be kept 1,800 feet from shore and out of shipping lanes. And each operator would be required to carry liability insurance.

No doubt most tourists assume these regulations are already in place. But in Florida, Jones explained, there are no particular requirements for a parasail business, other than the general maritime stuff, like life jackets, on-board observers and prohibitions against operating 30 minutes after sunset or in the Intracoastal Waterway. None of the state’s 120 commercial parasail outfits need to undergo safety training or licensing. No one inspects their boats or harnesses or tow ropes. No government agency makes sure they have insurance. All they need to do is show up with a kite and a rope and a boat. No rules. No insurance.

But once again, the notion of “too much government” trumped public safety. “Certain ultra conservative members of the Legislature are basically against any regulation,” said the Republican Jones. “They talk about government intrusion in people’s lives. And that the last thing they want to do is add more cost to doing business in Florida,” Jones said. His argument that protecting tourists from unsafe operators was actually a good business tactic for the state’s tourism industry did not convince the Senate leadership to move his bill out of committee.

The problem, he complained, is that the media only reports on the occasional fatalities caused by the unregulated parasail industry. “You guys only write about this when somebody’s killed,” he said. “The public doesn’t know about the broken legs, the punctured lungs and the fractured pelvises.” If the public was aware of the injuries, as well as the deaths, he said, there’d be a great clamor for safety regulations.

Jones, term limited, won’t be in the Senate next year. “But I predict that someday this legislation will pass. But unfortunately, it won’t come until after we have additional fatalities.”

Until then, perhaps the U.S. State Department should issue a traveler’s safety warning — for Florida:

“Parasailing has killed U.S. citizen tourists who were dragged through palm trees or were slammed into buildings. Florida’s third-world safety regulations are definitely not up to U.S. standards.”

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