WILMINGTON, N.C. — The owner of a parasailing operation involved in a fatal accident last month said Wednesday that a strong wind gust caught the boat's crew by surprise and led to the deaths of two tourists.
Barrett McMullan's testimony came in the first day of three days of hearings planned by the U.S. Coast Guard into the Aug. 28 deaths of Cynthia Woodcock, 60, of Kernersville, and Lorrie Shoup, 55, of Granby, Colo.
The two women were parasailing off Ocean Isle Beach when the tow rope connecting their parachute to the boat Tied High snapped, and they plummeted about 500 feet into the choppy water. Autopsies showed the women died of blunt force trauma.
"The tow line separated, and the mate was directed to cut the anchor line so they could go chase the chute and go pick up the people," said McMullan, the president of parasail operator N.C. Watersports.
At one point, he said, one crew member was able to grab hold of the women in the water, he said.
"The chute was still inflated, and trying to hold onto that pressure, I can only imagine, must have been unbelievable," he said. "Eventually, the people were pulled from his arms and taken back out (to sea) again."
McMullan said the Tied High was a new boat and had recently passed inspection. He told Coast Guard officials that he maintains his equipment.
"There is no required maintenance that I am aware of. However, during every off season, I will take all of my parachutes, all of my flight bars and all of my harnesses to (a manufacturing and repair firm) in Florida," he said.
Several of Woodcock's relatives attended the Coast Guard hearing to hear from witnesses about her last moments.
"They're still in the grieving process," cousin Tom Collins said. "It's tough, but we'll get through it."
The Coast Guard is collecting testimony from the Tied High crew, other passengers and the National Weather Service. Officials will forward their findings to a panel in Washington, D.C., which will determine whether the government should impose safety regulations on the parasailing industry.
Neither the Coast Guard nor the state Department of Labor regulate parasail operators. Officials said it is considered a recreational activity, like hang-gliding or skydiving.
"This part of the investigation is not necessarily designed to hold someone accountable," Coast Guard Lt. Chester Warren said. "It's designed to figure out what happened and what we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again."
The Coast Guard officials issued a safety alert last week, reminding parasail operators to closely watch forecasted weather conditions and wind speed.
Tropical Storm Danny was kicking up wind and waves along much of the coast on the day of the fatal accident, but tropical storm watches that covered the Outer Banks didn't extend south as far as Ocean Isle Beach.