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Family of parasailing accident victim pushes for law

Mother and sister of 15-year-old girl who died are lobbying for "The Amber May Law," legislation that would bring equipment and safety checks to a  largely unregulated industry.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Shannon Kraus lost her 15-year-old daughter, Amber May White, to a parasailing accident last month, and she doesn’t want anyone else to have to go through what she’s been through. Hoping to avert a similar tragedy, she’s begun a campaign for national safety standards for the unregulated parasailing industry.

“This was an accident that didn’t need to happen,” Kraus told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira during an exclusive interview Wednesday. “I don’t want it to happen to anyone else. We’re devastated. Every day, we walk around our house, and it’s empty. We don’t have Amber May’s laughter anymore.”

During the second week of August, as a back-to-school fling, Amber May and her sister, Crystal White, 17, went on vacation to Pompano Beach, Fla., with family friends while Kraus stayed home in Summerfield, Fla.

On Aug. 18, the girls called their mother from the beach, begging her to let them go parasailing.

Kraus said she tends to be overprotective and wasn’t keen on the idea, but the girls told her that they’d been watching people parasailing all day and it was perfectly safe. Kraus finally relented.

They went up around 1 p.m., according to police reports, about a half hour after the National Weather Service had put out a marine advisory warning about a line of thunderstorms coming into the area. Pictures taken while the girls were getting strapped into a harness together, beneath a big yellow parasail with a smiley face on it, show dark clouds gathering behind them.

Scot Kipp, the operator of the parasailing boat owned by Pompano Beach Watersports, Inc., had started the boat and was towing the girls along the shoreline when winds kicked up from about 15 mph to 40 mph.

Frightened by the wind, Amber May shouted down to Kipp to pull them down, but the ride continued until the wind pulled the parasail with the two girls and the boat into shore, where the boat grounded.

Police reports say the parasail spun in the wind for up to two minutes while Kipp tried unsuccessfully to pull the girls down with a winch. The rope attaching the parasail to the boat finally snapped, and the girls crashed onto the tiled roof of a two-story beachfront home.

Still attached to the parasail, they were dragged into a tree, where they dangled, badly injured, until rescuers could cut them down.

Crystal suffered a gash on her face and major trauma to her head. Amber May’s neck was broken; two days later she died.

“Crystal, she lost her best friend and her sister,” said Kraus, who came to New York to appear on TODAY despite the death of her father last Friday. “I’m here because I really want to change things. I’m worried about other people. I want nobody else to go through this. I want no family, no mother, no father, no sister, no brother — I don’t want anybody to feel what we’re having to feel every day.”

She’s filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pompano Beach Watersports, which denies any wrongdoing in the death, calling it an unfortunate but unforeseeable accident.

Industry unregulatedShe and her lawyer, John Leighton, are also pressing for passage of a Florida law and national legislation that would for the first time regulate the parasailing industry.

“One of the reasons we need this kind of law is because there is nothing to prevent this from happening,” Leighton told Vieira.

“Meredith, you and I could go out and get a boat, a parachute, and a piece of rope and we can go into the parasailing business. I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the attorney said.

He said that Kipp, who was licensed to carry passengers on inland waters, did not have a license to operate a commercial vessel in offshore waters. Leighton also said that Kipp allegedly ignored weather warnings and was operating the boat too close to shore.

Kipp was not interviewed, but his lawyer, Roderick Coleman, told TODAY off-camera that Kipp did nothing wrong. He said local law enforcement had often checked Kipp’s license during the years he’s operated his business and never found anything wrong with it.

The proposed Florida law, which has been introduced in the state legislature, would require operators to stay at least 2,000 feet from the shore and would set parameters for acceptable wind conditions in which to operate. Known as "The Amber May Law," Leighton said it would also set operating guidelines and standards for equipment.

Kraus and Leighton said they also want federal legislation governing parasailing.

“We got somebody who wasn’t properly licensed even to operate the vessel where it was,” Leighton said. “They were operating in winds against all accepted standards, including there had been a National Weather Service Advisory. And they were too close to shore.”

Crystal, who lost her boyfriend to an auto accident just before last Thanksgiving, said she still experiences pain from her injuries. But the biggest loss is that of her sister, with whom she was exceptionally close — as Vieira put it, “joined at the hip.”

“My sister was a wonderful person. She was always happy. She had loads of friends,” Crystal told Vieira. “It didn’t matter who you were, she’d give you a chance. She was just wonderful. You could be in the worst mood in the world and she’d make you the happiest person. She always put a smile on my face.”