Investigation into Hilton Head parasailing accident continues

astice@islandpacket.comApril 11, 2012 

The U.S. Coast Guard continues to examine a March 9 parasailing accident in which a man and a woman were dragged through a marsh near Sea Pines after their tow line snapped, investigators in Charleston say.

The intent of the investigation is to issue safety recommendations rather than sanctions, said Coast Guard Lt. Patrick Grizzle.

The man and woman, who emergency responders and investigators have not identified because of medical privacy laws, suffered cuts and bruises after the rigging snapped while they were being pulled by a Palmetto Bay Parasail boat in Calibogue Sound after 3 p.m. that day. Another woman on board sustained rope burns on her hands from attempting to hold on to the line.

The National Weather Service in Charleston issued an advisory at about 4 p.m., warning mariners of strong winds caused by showers moving toward Hilton Head Island. Grizzle declined to say if the gusts were the cause of the snapped tow line, citing the ongoing investigation.

The Coast Guard has oversight of commercial boats that take passengers out on the water for hire, Grizzle said. Vessels that carry more than six passengers have to be inspected every five years. Those that carry fewer than six, such as the Palmetto Bay Parasail boat, do not get inspected; however, captains or other operators must still have a Coast Guard license, Grizzle said.

Equipment for commercial maritime ventures -- whether it's scuba gear or parasail rigging -- is not inspected, he said.

The Coast Guard can revoke or suspend the credentials such as the ones issued to Palmetto Bay Parasail, but that doesn't happen often -- investigators' "main goal is safety," Grizzle said.

"We identify certain practices that we may not see as the best and try to work with local industry partners on changing those, or identifying laws that may need to change on the regulatory side," he added.

Battalion Chief Mick Mayers of the Town of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Division said he had some advice for the parasail operators if an injury occurs on their watch: Stay on scene and communicate with emergency responders.

Rescue crews "connected the dots" in the March 9 incident after receiving two separate calls from people who saw the man and the woman descending, he said. According to an incident report that redacted the pair's names and injuries because of medical privacy laws, one landed near Deer Island Road and the other soon after near Calibogue Cay. Mayers knew the two locations were close together with a tidal creek in between and figured they were related.

"My first question was, 'Where is the boat? Do we have an overturned boat in the water?'" Mayers said. "We didn't know the whole story, and it took us a while to pin everybody down.

"Once the boat left the scene, we had no idea what was going on. I don't know why they left -- that's up to the Coast Guard to deal with."

Operators at Palmetto Bay Parasail declined to comment for this article.

A crew member was located at Deer Island but was unaware of other injuries and couldn't account for the boat's location or how many were onboard, according to the incident report.

Mayers said he understands if the boat operators were "freaked out" by the accident but said the situation would have been resolved faster if the crew had stuck around or made contact with responders on marine radio.

The boat returned to Palmetto Bay Marina to drop off the two remaining passengers, and emergency responders met with the passengers in the waiting room of Hilton Head Hospital to get the full story, according to the incident report.

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