Broward County

Parasailing death inquiry to focus on equipment

The parasailing harness that held a 28-year-old Connecticut woman nearly 200 feet aloft appears to have sheared and caused the woman to plummet to her death in the ocean below, said a parasailing expert who reviewed photographs and video of the Aug. 15 accident.

Mark McCulloh, chairman of the Parasail Safety Council and one of the sport’s pioneers since the 1970s, said he studied video of the parasailing harness used in the Pompano Beach accident, and that, in his opinion, he saw “two support straps that appeared to have been sheared at the seam or stitch point.”

“A cause for that can be poor manufacturing or years of maintenance neglect, which results in decomposition,” he said, adding that the harness looked like an older model.

The harness, the winch and all the equipment used in the parasailing accident is now the subject of a multi-agency investigation led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the National Transportation Safety Board.

On Wednesday, Conservation Commission spokesman Jorge Pino declined to comment on the harness and whether it may have sheared and caused the accident. He said the agency is still gathering all the facts of the incident.

On Aug. 15, Kathleen Miskell and her husband, Stephen, who had been married for nearly three years, were on vacation and decided to take an afternoon parasail ride offered by WaveBlast Water Sports, which operates out of the Sands Harbor Resort & Marina.

The Miskells were strapped into a side-by-side parasail when Kathleen Miskell’s harness malfunctioned, dropping her about 200 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

After reeling in Stephen Miskell, the tow boat’s crew rushed to where Kathleen Miskell floated, face down. She later died at the hospital.

The cause of death was “asphyxia due to drowning and multiple blunt force injuries,’’ according to Broward’s Office of the Medical Examiner. Her manner of death was ruled an accident.

However, investigators are still gathering the facts.

Last week, officials from several agencies jointly interviewed Stephen Miskell; the parasailing company’s owner, Zachary Chandler; and the boat’s captain, Casey Fuller.

Terry Williams, an NTSB spokesman, declined to comment on the results of those interviews, citing the ongoing investigation.

Next week, NTSB investigators will examine some of the equipment used in the accident.

“We plan on performing an in-water examination and performance test upon the vessels’ hydraulic winch, which is used to deploy and recover the parasail and its fliers,’’ Williams said.

NTSB investigations can take nine months to one year for completion.

As the federal agency seeks to determine the cause of the accident, questions remain about the relationship between WaveBlast and the hotel where it operates, the Sands Harbor Resort & Marina in Pompano Beach.

That relationship is significant because maritime law may prevent Miskell’s family from collecting any money from WaveBlast if the company is found to have been negligent or otherwise contributed to the accident.

Under the law, victims can only collect the equivalent of the value of the company’s boat — unless another partner in the operation, such as a hotel, was connected to the excursions, said Ira Leesfield, a Miami attorney with experience in parasailing cases.

Neither Chandler, who owns WaveBlast, nor his attorney, Donna Albert, has returned calls for comment.

Charles Seitz, president and chief executive of the Sands Harbor, said Chandler maintains a WaveBlast office at the resort for water-bike rentals only.

“He was not authorized to operate a parasail boat from our premises, and our understanding was that he kept the boat behind a private home somewhere near here,’’ Seitz said.

He said he observed Chandler’s water-bike operation and found it to be very safety conscious.

Chandler has since reopened the water-bike rental business at the hotel, Seitz said.

Inside the Sands Harbor lobby this week, WaveBlast fliers were still available and advertising both water-bike rentals and parasailing from the hotel.

Seitz said Chandler probably took some liberties in using the hotel’s public dock to pick up parasailing customers, but emphasized that Chandler did so without the hotel’s consent.

It is unclear where the Miskells launched their parasailing excursion.

Back in Connecticut, Kathleen Miskell’s family is preparing to say goodbye to the good-natured teacher’s aide who loved life.

She was an active member of the Irish American Home Society and an accomplished Irish step dancer.

Maureen Kennedy, vice president of the society, said the tight-knit community has come together to support the Miskell family. The group helped raise money to defer the travel costs incurred by Stephen Miskell’s immediate family for travel from Ireland to Connecticut for the service.

Kennedy said Stephen Miskell was “doing as well as could be expected.”

Family and friends will remember Kathleen Miskell at a wake Friday in Wethersfield, Conn., and at a funeral Saturday at the Miskells’ home parish in East Hartford.

Donations to help the Miskells can be sent to the Irish American Home Society, 132 Commerce St., Glastonbury, CT 06033, c/o Stephen Miskell.