Editor's Note: The headline has been changed to clarify that the water sports industry, as a whole, in South Carolina is largely unregulated.
A man on vacation with his wife and two children in Myrtle Beach last month lost both his legs in an accident involving a boat while returning to shore after he went parasailing.
It remains to be seen if the tragedy will prompt South Carolina to consider new regulations on the commercial water sports industry, as other states have done.
Henry Owens of Carpentersville, Ill., was on a "banana boat," a long, yellow raft after parasailing with Ocean Watersports in the water off of Myrtle Beach. The banana boat should have taken him back to shore, but somehow, Owens ended up back in the water, where his legs were caught in the propellers of the boat that had pulled the parasail, Sgt. Philip Cain of the city's Beach Patrol said.
Owens was put into a medically-induced coma for two days after the accident, according to a report from WLS-TV in Chicago. Both of his legs have been amputated above the knee. His wife said that at least one of the their children watched the maiming unfold.
"I remember going underneath. The propellers were there. I was trying to work my way up and my legs got caught in the propellers," Owens told the TV station.
Jim Alford, an employee of Ocean Watersports, said he couldn't comment on the incident specifically but that the company was thinking of Owens and his family. David Sage, owner of the company, did not respond to multiple phone calls.
"I can tell you that we’re just devastated and certainly praying for Mr. Owens all the time and every day," Alford said.
Parasailing doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of any public authority in South Carolina: It is not overseen by the department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which inspects amusement rides, nor by the Department of Natural Resources, which registers and titles watercraft.
The U.S. Coast Guard doesn't have jurisdiction over parasailing either, though it does issue licenses for boat captains that ferry paying customers.
The Coast Guard also inspects some watercraft annually, but the boat involved in the Myrtle Beach incident was small enough that it did not have to be inspected, said Lt. J.B. Zorn, spokesperson for the Charleston sector of the Coast Guard.
Zorn said the Coast Guard is investigating the incident but did not give a timetable for how long the inquiry might last.
Until a few years ago, parasailing was unregulated in much of the United States, said Matthew Dvorak of the Water Sports Industry Association. But after several high-profile accidents were caught on video — usually while customers were still aloft — members of the industry started drafting best practices about six years ago, Dvorak said.
The Coast Guard also put pressure on the group.
"It got to the point where they said, 'You either do this, or we'll do it for you,' " Dvorak said.
Those guidelines mostly pertain with how to operate in bad weather and poor water conditions, and they served as a basis for legislation that since have passed in several states, including Florida, Dvorak said. He said that safety statistics have improved dramatically since the WSIA wrote the best practices.
Those rules do not address how to transfer customers from one watercraft to another, which is necessary in a busy beach area without a nearby dock, like Myrtle Beach. Dvorak said businesses use different methods, sometimes ferrying customers out with another boat, and sometimes using a banana boat or a rigid raft of some kind.
He said the WSIA will now discuss guidelines on that part of the parasailing experience.
South Carolina's lack of regulation for parasailing means companies here face no legal requirements as to what conditions they may operate in, the quality of their equipment or how much insurance they should carry.
Membership in organizations like the WSIA is voluntary, but its standards are widespread throughout the industry. Michael Fiem, owner and operator of Tidal Wave Watersports on Isle of Palms, said they've essentially been adopted by the handful of insurance companies that will underwrite parasailing.
Fiem said he still thought it was a good idea for South Carolina to adopt those standards into law, however, as Florida has.
Insurance companies are a powerful force within the industry, and they do inspect companies' equipment, Fiem said. Because the industry is relatively small, a claim on one company can easily make everyone's premiums rise.
In the case of the Myrtle Beach incident, Fiem said, "It's going to be a large settlement, and ultimately all parasailing companies who are insured with this (underwriter) are all going to take a hit on it."