Grand jury indicts boat captain in Virgin Islands parasailing death

The criminal case is a signal that the U.S. Coast Guard and federal prosecutors may be more willing to use manslaughter under the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute and other charges against parasailing providers who operate in treacherous weather or with unsafe equipment.

Kyle Coleman, 32, surrendered his merchant mariner’s license and has been indicted on the federal count of misconduct or neglect of a ship officer. The indictment alleges negligence or dereliction of duties that led to the death of Bernice Kraftcheck, 60, and injuries to her daughter, Danielle Haese, 34, on Nov. 15, 2011, near Water Island.

The two women “were hoisted into the air for a parasail ride as wind conditions were deteriorating,” the Coast Guard’s statement said. “The strong winds and a weak towline caused the towline to break, resulting in the parasail separating from the vessel and the two women falling into the water, causing the death of Kraftcheck and serious injuries to Haese.”

Neither the press release nor the indictment specified what the wind speed and other weather conditions were during the voyage of the 31-foot powerboat Turtle. The parachute, attached to a 600-foot towline, can lift people 400 feet in the air.

The women had been passengers aboard the cruise ship Celebrity Eclipse. Celebrity Cruises suspended Caribbean parasailing excursions in the aftermath of the accident.

Coleman was arrested Nov. 7, 2012, in St. Thomas. Two weeks later, at a conference of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association, a Coast Guard attorney highlighted parasailing accidents during a keynote speech on current safety issues. Melissa Bert, chief of the Coast Guard’s maritime and international law division, said federal prosecutors have the ability to use the Seaman’s Manslaughter Statute to discourage the riskiest behavior.

“We can’t allow people to have these really shady operations that kill people,” Bert said at the New York conference, without specifying any particular incident or operator.

“It’s amazing that we’ve only had 16 deaths in the past few years,” she said. “People would like the Coast Guard to regulate (parasailing), but we really don’t have the capacity to do that.”

In 2009, in response to a fatal parasailing accident that killed two people, the Coast Guard issued a Marine Safety Alert to the industry. In that incident, the towline parted and the wayward parachute dragged the victims into a fishing pier. High winds and waves were among the factors.

The safety alert “strongly” reminded operators “to be vigilant in their observations of current and forecasted weather and sea conditions with particular attention paid to wind speed. Approaching weather patterns or squall lines present significant hazards to these operations due to sudden and dramatic shifts in wind direction, gusty winds, or even lightning.”

The safety alert specified that captains should follow the safe operating standards published by the Professional Association of Parasail Operators (PAPO).

Officials at San Diego-based PAPO didn’t respond to a request for comment on the recent indictment and Bert’s remark’s about recent fatalities. Coleman’s public defender, Gabriel Villegas, also didn’t respond.

Coleman was released on a $10,000 bond. He was indicted Nov. 14. His trial was scheduled to begin in January.

By Professional Mariner Staff