Captain in South Florida fatal parasailing accident had valid license, criminal record

Expert says it appears that equipment was faulty or the operator failed to attach it properly.

08/16/2012 5:00 AM

08/17/2012 9:01 PM

The operator of the boat involved in a fatal parasailing accident in Pompano Beach Wednesday had a valid captain’s license, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed Friday.

Casey Fuller, 28, received his license in April 2011, even though he had a criminal record from 2006 involving felony grand theft and forgery, public records show.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which certifies boat captains, was aware of his criminal past, but deemed that either enough time had elapsed since the crime or that it was not relevant to whether he was qualified to operate a commercial boat, records show.

According to the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fuller was arrested on charges that he submitted a $3,700 bad check to a Grab-and-Go store in Lighthouse Point in May 2006. The check was written on an account named “Hobo’s Fish Joint.” He was placed on probation and ordered to serve community service as a result of the case, but was arrested two years later on a probation violation, records show.

Fuller captains the 28-foot parasail boat owned by the excursion company Waveblast Watersports. About 3 p.m. Wednesday, Kathleen and Stephen Miskell were hoisted into the air in tandem, about 200 feet in the air, when Kathleen’s harness failed. She plummeted into the ocean, as her husband, who remained attached to the bar, watched helplessly. She was found face down in the water and was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

Fuller did not return phone calls left on his voice mail by The Miami Herald. The other crew member on the boat, Jeff Zabadal, 20, answered his door in Pompano Beach Friday, but slammed it shut on a Miami Herald reporter.

Waveblast’s owner, Zachary Chandler, has not returned phone calls to The Herald and did not answer at his beach front Pompano Beach condo, nor has his attorney, Donna Albert.

Meanwhile Friday, several agencies, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Coast Guard, continued their probe into the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board announced it would send an agent to South Florida to join the investigation.

FWC said Friday the investigation would be “lengthy.”

“The FWC is currently investigating every aspect of this case including the equipment that was used, the harness, the rope, the parachute and any other equipment we feel is necessary in order to paint a clearer picture of what occurred,” said FWC spokesman Jorge Pino.

Mark McCulloh, chairman of the Parasail Safety Council, said photographs and video of the accident scene seem to show that the harness, which is hooked to the tow bar, sheered. While it’s still too early to say for sure what happened, he said, it’s clear that either the equipment was faulty or the operator failed to attach it properly.

McCulloh, who has been associated with parasailing for over 40 years, said the laws have changed about whether someone can be certified as a boat captain if they had committed a felony. However, he said, consumers should be able to obtain information about boat captains.

As of now, the records are not easily attainable, and criminal records are also not accessible unless you know a boat operator’s full name, birth date and social security number.

Fuller’s troubles with the law in the past should have no bearing on the fatal accident, according to Ira Leesfield, a Miami lawyer who handles parasailing cases.

“Bear in mind that it’s the maintenance of the equipment, not necessarily the operation of the boat, that’s the fatal flaw here,’’ Leesfield said. “I don’t see that a conviction so long ago for theft is germane to this case.’’

Leesfield said a little-known loophole in maritime law may prevent Miskell’s family from collecting any money from the company. Under the law, victims can only collect the equivalent of the value of the company’s boat, he said. Unless, however, another partner in the operation, such as a hotel, was connected to the excursions.

Waveblast operates out of the Sands Harbor Hotel and Resort on Pompano Beach.

A front desk clerk at the hotel said the company maintained an office in the hotel. It’s not clear whether the couple actually booked the trip through the hotel or directly with the company, whose brochures advertise the trips at $30.

Anthony Lavista, the dock master at Taha Marine, next door to the Sands Harbor, said he often saw Waveblast’s parasail boats taking off from the Intracoastal.

“They seemed pretty busy, said Lavista, who said Waveblast often used his boat gas station to refuel their fleet.

Jonathan Carter, who works for American Watersport, said Waveblast was the only company to offer parasail rides in Pompano Beach since August 2007, when 15-year-old Amber White was killed parasailing with her sister. Amber and Crystal White were hurtled across the beach and slammed into a building when a wind gust snapped the line of their parasail. The crew was blamed for ignoring bad weather and a lawsuit was settled out of court.

Amber White died one week shy of her 16th birthday.

Carter said at one time his company offered parasailing trips, but stopped because of the difficulty of hiring licensed boat captains and maintaining the equipment.

“It just wasn’t worth it,” said Carter.

Since Amber White’s death, American Watersport, which is affiliated with Wyndham Royal Vista Resort — the hotel where the White sisters booked their excursion — is not even allowed to make referrals for parasail excursions.

Nationwide, since 1982 there have been 72 deaths attributed to parasail accidents — most of them due to lines snapping in bad weather.

That doesn’t appear to be the case in Kathleen Miskell’s death.

The Miskells were on vacation this week in South Florida, staying with friends in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, before she was due to start classes next week. A teacher’s aide in Connecticut, Kathleen Miskell was working on her graduate degree.

Her father, James Mulcahy, a retired widower, said Thursday that his daughter was a fun-loving soul who was very active in the local Irish-American community. She was an Irish step dancer since she was 3 years old.

Miskell’s death brought back memories of his daughter Amber’s death, Dennis White said Friday.

“I haven’t stopped crying since I heard,’’ White said.

Saturday marks the five-year anniversary of Amber’s accident — also in Pompano Beach. Over the years, her family has tried to get laws passed regulating safety. They even started an online petition drive — www.rememberamber.com — to raise awareness.

There are no state or federal laws regulating parasailing. No inspections or training is required.

But repeated attempts to create laws regulating the industry have failed in the state legislature.

Dennis White said that while he is sad for his own loss and the loss of Kathleen Miskell, he is angry that nothing has been done.

“I hope, if nothing else, this brings more awareness to this problem,” he said. “If somebody would have just checked the equipment, there is no doubt in my mind that my daughter and [Kathleen Miskell] would still be alive.”

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