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Woman killed, two children injured in parasailing crash in Florida Keys

A wind gust led the boat captain to cut the line to the parasail, investigators said

The Old Seven Mile Bridge, shown in 2012. A group of parasailing tourists crashed into the bridge on May 30, and a 33-year-old woman died. (Cammy Clark/Miami Herald/AP)
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Charter fishing guide John Callion was watching tourists parasailing in the Florida Keys on Memorial Day when the weather turned. In a matter of seconds, calm conditions mutated into 30 mph winds.

“I knew right away the outcome was going to be bad,” Callion said in a Facebook post.

In normal conditions, the people parasailing that day would have been gently floating through the air, buoyed by the parasail behind them and tethered by a rope to a boat guiding them on a scenic adventure. Instead, as Callion watched, a gust of wind flooded the parasail, threatening to drag the 31-foot motorboat, investigators with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in a report. So the captain cut the line tethering the parasail to the boat, according to the report, causing it to plunge and drop its three passengers into the water.

Propelled by the wind, the parasail itself stayed aloft and soared south, dragging the three occupants — who were still attached to it by rope — through the water, according to the report. As the parasailing boat gave chase, Callion started filming, thinking he would capture a dramatic rescue on video.

“But as time went on it was clear to me that the parasail boat was in dire need of assistance,” he wrote on Facebook.

Callion raced after them in his fishing boat.

Neither vessel was able to intervene before the parasail hit the Old Seven Mile Bridge, a decommissioned span that serves as a fishing pier and pedestrian walkway. At first, Callion didn’t think that was a problem.

“I thought the parachute hit the bridge and the people were just going to be dangling when I got there,” he told “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, “but it actually was a much worse situation.”

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What was supposed to be a fun activity during a family vacation had quickly turned into a horrifying chain of events that left a 33-year-old mother dead. Officials say the woman, Supraja Alaparthi of Schaumburg, Ill., was with a larger group of relatives vacationing in the Florida Keys. She had been on the parasailing excursion with her 10-year-old son and 9-year-old nephew, who were both injured but survived the collision. The incident is now being investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

According to the fish and wildlife officials, Alaparthi and the children had gone out on Monday afternoon with Lighthouse Parasail, a Marathon-based outfit, WPLG reported. Once they were out on the water, Alaparthi strapped into the parasail with the two boys. Shortly after they took flight, a gust of wind “pegged” the parasail, an industry term to describe when the parasail chute becomes a sail that drags the boat it’s attached to. Callion estimated that, once it was detached from the boat, the parasail traveled one to two miles for several minutes at “a high rate of speed” before hitting the bridge.

Callion said he was the first boater to arrive at the crash site. There, he discovered that the parasail, instead of leaving its three passengers hanging uninjured, had dragged them into a solid part of the bridge, he said in the Facebook post. Callion cut each of them from their harnesses. The 10-year-old boy had only minor injuries, but Alaparthi and her nephew were unconscious, he said. After getting them on board, Callion drove his boat to the Sunset Grille & Raw Bar in Marathon as his passengers tried to revive the unconscious victims.

“It was pretty much the worst thing you could imagine,” he told the Miami Herald. “It was real bad.”

Alaparthi died at the scene, Monroe County Sheriff Sgt. Deborah Johnson said in a report; Alaparthi’s 9-year-old nephew was unconscious and “barely breathing.” Although initially delayed because of the severe weather, a helicopter eventually flew the 9-year-old to a hospital in Miami.

On Tuesday, the boy’s parents told Callion that they expect their son to make a full recovery, Keys Weekly reported.

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The full sequence of events is still being investigated. According to state investigators, the captain of the parasailing boat, identified in an incident report as 49-year-old Daniel Couch, cut the line, causing the three parasailors to drop “from an unknown height.” A person in law enforcement told the Herald that Couch probably did so thinking he and his crew would then catch Alaparthi and the two children as they fell.

Mark McCulloh, who pioneered parasailing in the 1970s and serves as chairman of the Florida-based Parasail Safety Council, told the Herald that Couch should have used other tactics, like veering side to side in an effort to deflate the parasail. Cutting the line is considered a no-no.

“He never should have done that,” McCulloh said. “That’s the golden rule. Do not cut the line.”

Lighthouse Parasail didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

In his Facebook post, Callion described the incident as “life changing” and ended it by articulating the lessons he’d drawn from it, lessons he hopes others will also take to heart.

“Never take life for granted,” he said. “Things can change in a second.”

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