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American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology:
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e3181c0e78f
Case Report

Parasailing Fatalities in Southwest Florida

Wolf, Barbara C. MD; Harding, Brett E. MBA

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From the Office of the District 21 Medical Examiner, Fort Myers, FL.

Manuscript received February 9, 2007; accepted March 9, 2007.

Reprints: Barbara C. Wolf, MD, Office of the District 21 Medical Examiner, 70 Danley Drive, Fort Myers, FL 33907. E-mail: barbaracwolf@aol.com.

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Abstract

Parasailing is a recreational sport that is generally considered to be of little risk to the participants. Typically, the passenger launches from a motorboat with a specially designed winch that pulls him or her back to the boat at the end of the ride. The sport is not regulated at the federal, state, or county level. There have been few reports of injuries to parasailors. Additionally, there have been only 2 fatalities reported to the United States Coast Guard in a 10-year review. We report the details of these 2 deaths, those of a mother and daughter riding in a tandem parasail, which occurred on Fort Myers Beach in 2001, as well as an additional case of a parasailing fatality that occurred in southwest Florida in 1999. These cases illustrate the injuries seen in such fatalities and the hazards posed by adverse weather conditions and faulty equipment, as well as the impairment of passenger judgment by drugs and/or alcohol.

Parasailing, sometimes termed “parascending,” is a recreational activity in which a person is towed behind a vehicle, most commonly a boat, while attached to a parachute.1 In contrast to paragliding, in which a pilot sits in a harness below the fabric wing of a foot-launched craft, and to hang gliding, in which a pilot is mounted on a harness hanging from a frame that is attached to a fabric wing, parasailing does not involve free flight. The parasailor does not steer and has essentially no control over the parachute.2

The sport of parasailing is not regulated at the federal, state, or county level. In some jurisdictions it is governed by local city or town ordinances through the issuing of permits or licenses allowing parasailing activity.3 Local regulations usually stipulate only the time of the day and the location where parasailing may take place. There are no reports in the forensic literature of deaths occurring during parasailing activities. In a 10-year review of parasailing accidents reported to the United States Coast Guard over the period from 1992 to 2001, there were only 2 passenger deaths attributed to a direct result of parasailing activity.3 We report these 2 cases of death occurring during parasailing, in addition to a third death that occurred when an off-duty employee of a parasailing company died while being towed by a jeep.

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CASE REPORTS

Case 1

A 37-year-old woman and her 13-year-old daughter, who were on vacation from Kentucky in July of 2001, were parasailing in a tandem rig on Fort Myers Beach in southwest Florida when a storm arose. The operators of the boat had attempted to reel in the passengers, but their harness came apart in the 25 m.p.h. winds and the parachute was swept away. The passengers fell approximately 200 feet into the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Emergency medical service workers pulled the mother and daughter from the water. The mother was unconscious, with agonal respirations, and was transported to a local hospital where an emergency thoracotomy was performed, with cross clamping of the aorta. Despite these interventions, she died during surgery. The body was then transferred to the Medical Examiner's Office.

Postmortem examination revealed the presence of cutaneous abrasions and ecchymoses involving the face, chest wall, shoulders, and legs. There were multiple displaced rib fractures bilaterally associated with pulmonary lacerations and contusions, and multiple liver lacerations, resulting in 500 mL of hemoperitoneum. The right iliac artery was lacerated, with retroperitoneal hemorrhage. There were multiple pelvic fractures. Reflection of the scalp revealed extensive diffuse subgaleal hemorrhage. The right temporal lobe of the brain was markedly contused, and there was dense subarachnoid hemorrhage overlying the right and left parietal lobes. The brain was swollen and showed evidence of herniation, with bilateral cerebellar tonsillar grooving and with Duret-type hemorrhages. There were bilateral orbital plate fractures. The postmortem examination was otherwise remarkable only for mild aortic atherosclerosis and nephrolithiasis. Toxicologic studies revealed only the presence of caffeine in postmortem blood. The cause of death was attributed to multiple blunt traumas.

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Case 2

The 13-year-old daughter involved in the incident described in case 1 was initially conscious after being pulled from the water, according to a bystander. She was transported to a local emergency room where cardiopulmonary resuscitation was unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead.

Postmortem examination revealed numerous cutaneous abrasions and ecchymoses involving the torso and extremities. The lower lobe of the left lung was extensively lacerated and contused. Small hemothoraces were present bilaterally. The right lobe of the liver bore multiple lacerations and there was almost complete transection of the caudate lobe. There were multiple splenic lacerations, and the organ was partially pulpified. Hemoperitoneum (600 mL) was present. There were no injuries to the head and brain. No pre-existing natural disease was identified. Postmortem toxicologic studies were negative. The cause of death was attributed to multiple blunt trauma.

The accident was investigated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and by the United States Coast Guard. The parasailing company had the required commercial license from the town, occupational license from the county, and certificate of insurance. The equipment was subsequently inspected by Mark McCulloh, founder of the Orlando-based Parasail Safety Council, who found the fabric of the harness to be worn and in poor condition (personal communication).

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Case 3

A 36-year-old white male who was an experienced parasailor and an employee of a parasailing company was parasailing while off duty in 1999. He was being towed by a jeep in a wooded area near Bunche Beach in Lee County, Florida. The driver of the jeep reported that the parasailor had been attempting amateur acrobatic maneuvers, flipping forwards and backwards, and winding the sail harness so that he was horizontal, a maneuver that the driver termed a “Superman.” The driver observed the right side of the victim's harness give way (Figs. 1 and 2). He attempted to bring the parasailor down, but the other side of the harness broke and the parasailor fell approximately 150 feet into 3 inches of standing water of the Sanibel salt flats. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Figure 1
Figure 1
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Figure 2
Figure 2
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Postmortem examination revealed abrasions to the face and arms and bilateral compound fractures of the distal radii and ulnae. There were multiple displaced rib fractures bilaterally, associated with bilateral hemothoraces (left chest, 1000 mL; right chest, 300 mL). The left lung was almost completely avulsed at the hilum, with lacerations of the left main bronchus and the left pulmonary artery. The upper lobe of the left lung was pulpified, and the right lung bore multiple lacerations. The pericardial sac was lacerated, and the heart was partially avulsed at the junction of the superior vena cava and the right atrium. The descending thoracic aorta was transected at the level of the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae. There were multiple lacerations of the liver and spleen associated with 2000 mL of hemoperitoneum. There were no injuries to the head and brain. No evidence of pre-existing natural disease was found. Postmortem toxicologic studies revealed a blood ethanol concentration of 0.168 g/dL and a urine ethanol concentration of 0.157 g/dL. Cocaine metabolites were detected in both blood and urine, with a blood benzoylecgonine concentration of 0.137 mg/L. The cause of death was attributed to multiple blunt trauma.

Subsequent to the accident, which was investigated by the local sheriff's office, the equipment in this case was also inspected by Mark McCulloh and was found to be worn and in poor condition (personal communication). Both sides of the harness had torn at the junctions with the straps leading to the canopy.

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DISCUSSION

The sport of parasailing originated in 1961 in France when Pierre-Marcel Lemoigne developed the first ascending canopy design, consisting of a hemispherical parachute with vertical and horizontal side stabilizers and central suspending lines.4 Lemoigne attached the parachute to a car and released parachutists at various heights as part of their training in parachuting.5 Additionally, in 1961, Colonel Michel Tournier of France became the first man to carry out a takeoff and flight in a tractor-drawn upward parachute.4 Jacques Istel of the American company “Pioneer Parachute” in 1963 purchased the rights to manufacture and sell Lemoigne's invention under the trade name “parasail.”

The sport was revolutionized in the 1970s by Mark McCulloh of Miami, Florida, who was the first to commercially use parachutes at sea.4 The initial parasails were raised from the shore, then later from specifically made platforms. McCulloh designed the first motorized platform in 1972, and in 1974 he designed the first boat with a special winch designed to pull the parasailor back to the ship. The water craft was termed the “winchboat” and was patented in 1976. The winchboat became commercially available in the mid 1980s. The first recorded winchboat accident occurred in 1977 during a media event at Sunset Beach, Treasure Island, Florida when a 26-year-old woman who had not previously parasailed was dragged under the water after the cable to the winch jumped off track and she could not be reeled back in.4 The woman was rescued unharmed.

Parasailing is primarily a recreational sport.1 The parasailor does not steer the canopy, and does not even need lessons to participate in the sport. However, parasailing did become a competitive sport in Germany in the late 1990s, with the competitions involving 2 parts; dropping or throwing a streamer onto a specified target and accuracy in landing.6 Additionally, land-based parasailing is a competitive sport in northern Europe, particularly Finland, with the parasailor towed behind an automobile or snowmobile.6 The first international parasailing competition was held in 2004.

The sport of parasailing is essentially unregulated, with the exception of local city or town ordinances.3 However, United States Coast Guard does license commercial watercraft, and parasailors must follow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules of flight and air traffic laws such as right-of-way stipulations.1

Two organizations have arisen in attempts to promote standard parasailing operating practices and to develop standard technical equipment, with the goal of a more uniform level of safety for parasailing. Mark McCulloh founded the Parasail Safety Counsel (PSC) in 1998. The Professional Association of Parasail Operators (PAPO) was organized in 2003. Both groups have developed guidelines that set specifications for equipment, standards for operating conditions and requirements for crew training.

There are 3 types of parasailing. The most popular and recognized method employs the platform of a ship, the winchboat, which has a specialized winch allowing lifting and landing on the ship. The parasailor must take off into the wind. The passenger sits in a harness rather than hanging. As the boat gains speed, the canopy fills with air and lifts the person or persons in the harness into the air. The altitude of the parasail is determined by the boat speed. Occasionally parasailors employ vehicles other than watercraft, such as an automobile. Other forms of parasailing including takeoff from the shore, with the landing usually in water, and takeoff from a platform with landing into the water or onto the platform. The equipment needed includes a boat with at least 90 HP, a parasail canopy, body harness, and tow lines.5 The canopies range from 24 to 48 feet in height, the average being 26 feet.1 The harness has a seat for one person or for 2 individuals, with one behind the other. Alternatively, 2 or 3 parasailors may sit in harnesses hooked together by tandem bars. Some commercial companies have specially designed canopies made to facilitate high lift into wind and to resist drag, termed High Lift Low Drag “HLLD.”5

The sport of parasailing is considered quite safe, and the literature contains little information pertaining to injuries and fatalities resulting from parasailing incidents. The United States Coast Guard reviewed a series of parasailing injuries and fatalities over a 10-year period from 1992 to 2001.3 Cases 1 and 2 described in this report were the only 2 passenger deaths that had been reported as a direct result of parasailing activity. There was also a single death reported of a crew member. Additionally, 49 injuries were reported to passengers and 3 to crew members. The majority of the passenger injuries involved tandem parasailing, with the most frequent scenario being the parasailors falling from aloft while tandem parasailing from uninspected vessels. The majority of the injuries were attributed to equipment failure or vessel operator error, with prevailing weather conditions or sudden violent changes in the weather often listed as contributing factors.

The safety of parasailing is in contrast to the extreme sports of hang gliding and paragliding, which are both recreational and competitive sports that involve free flight and which require knowledge of meteorology.7,8 The hang glider is a one-winged, nonmotorized vehicle. Hang gliding originated in Germany in 1891 when Otto Lilienthal built the first glider. The craft was composed of wood and waxed cotton cloth. Lilienthal was killed in 1896 in a crash from 50 feet. Dr. Francis Rogallo, an engineer who had designed airplanes for the military in World War II, designed the Rogallo flexible wing, a triangular-shaped hang glider that led to modern versions after a control bar was added.1,2 Current day hang gliders consist of a sail attached to a rigid frame. The pilot hangs in a harness connected to the frame and steers the craft using a control or “trapeze” bar by shifting his body weight.2

Hang gliding depends on wind and air currents. The pilot launches the craft by running into the wind off of a hill or a cliff. Distance flight requires finding good air currents, called “thermals.”1,2 Thermals consist of masses of rising warm air that form when the ground is warmed by the sun and heats the air above it. Hang gliders can stay in the air for hours. Some pilots opt for cross-country or mountain flying. Reserve parachutes are usually worn for rides higher than 300 feet above the ground.2

A paraglider is also a free flight, foot launched craft.9 The pilot sits in a harness below a flexible fabric wing and holds controls in each hand which pull down the trailing edge of the wing and allow some steering of the craft. However, the paragliding pilot has less control over the flight than does the hang gliding pilot. Paramotoring uses the same equipment as paragliding but adds a small engine and propeller behind the pilot, creating a type of small ultralight aircraft.9 Paraskiers wear parachutes that pull the skiers over the snow.2

Similar to parasailing, most injuries sustained during paragliding and hang gliding have been associated with unfavorable winds and adverse weather conditions. Injuries have most commonly occurred during landing, with fewer occurring during start up procedures and while the pilot is aloft. The extremities are at greatest risk during the landing phase, and the most serious injuries reported have been to the spine.

The rarity of fatalities occurring during parasailing attests to the relative safety of the sport. As with previously reported cases of parasailing injuries, our 3 cases illustrate the importance of proper maintenance of the parasailing equipment to ensure the safety of the passengers. Additionally, close attention must be made to forecasts of possible impending inclement weather. As with any sport, impaired judgment due to the use of alcohol and/or drugs greatly increases the risk of an injury or fatality.

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REFERENCES

1. Wills-Harris T. Hang Gliding and Parasailing. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press; 1989.

2. Schindler JE. Hang Gliding and Parasailing. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing; 2005.

3. Eulitt PW. Analysis of parasail vessel casualties. A review of casualties aboard inspected and uninspected US flagged vessels engaged in parasailing for hire, 1992–2001. Available at: http://www.teampapo.org/documents/USCGParasailStudy.pdf. Accessed December 12, 2006.

4. Parasail Safety Council. Pioneers of nautical parasailing. Available at: http://www.parasail.org/parasailhistory.htm. Accessed December 7, 2006.

5. Parasailing info. Available at: http://www.parasailing.com/parasailing_information.asp. Accessed December 7, 2006.

6. Parasailing. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/parasailing. Accessed December 7, 2006.

7. Christey GR. Serious parasport injuries in Auckland, New Zealand. Emerg Med Australas. 2005;17:163–166.

8. Kleiner K. From parachutes to paragliders. Available at: http://www.ushga.org/article03.asp. Accessed December 14, 2006.

9. Paragliding. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paragliding. Accessed December 7, 2006.

Keywords:

parasailing; injuries; death; forensic pathology

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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