Fatality raises questions about zip line safety

North Carolina and many other states do not regulate zip lines. To protect customers at Navitat Canopy Adventures in Asheville, staff members check equipment daily along with third-party annual safety inspections.
North Carolina and many other states do not regulate zip lines. To protect customers at Navitat Canopy Adventures in Asheville, staff members check equipment daily along with third-party annual safety inspections. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A popular YMCA summer camp in Western North Carolina has closed its zip line after an equipment failure two weeks ago led to the death of a 12-year-old Wilmington girl.

David Ozmore, president of the YMCA of High Point, which runs Camp Cheerio in Alleghany County, said a rope securing Bonnie Sanders Burney to the zip line snapped, causing her to fall into a ravine about 20 feet below.

Inner Quest, the company that trains camp staff and conducts routine zip line inspections, is investigating. Ozmore said he is awaiting results of an investigation by the Alleghany County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Bryan Maines did not return calls about the status of the investigation.

Commercial zip lines in North Carolina are not regulated by the state, even as they grow in popularity. Zip lines are specifically excluded from the list of amusement rides regulated by North Carolina’s Department of Labor.

At least nine states – Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – regulate commercial zip lines, according to an Observer review of state policies.

Those in the industry defend the safety of commercial zip lines. Insurance coverage for operators typically requires safety inspections.

“The industry is generally safe,” said James Borishade, executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology, a trade association that creates zip line safety standards. “And I know that that’s not comforting coming off the recent tragedy in North Carolina. ... As with any adventure industry, you have some exposure to risk.”

Because North Carolina does not require operators to apply for permits or report injuries, it’s unclear how many commercial zip lines there are, or how often injuries happen.

Fatal fall

Camp Cheerio draws students from around the region, with nearly 400 weekly campers. About 1 in 14 campers comes from Mecklenburg County, Ozmore said. The camp’s location in Glade Valley is about 85 miles north of Charlotte, within 7 miles of the Virginia border.

Ozmore said that around 3 p.m. on June 11, a trained 29-year-old worker secured the girl, who went by Sanders, into a harness. The harness was connected to a pulley above by a single rope.

Sanders took off from one hillside. After she had traveled more than 200 yards, the rope snapped, and Sanders fell, Ozmore said.

Ozmore said camp emergency responders arrived immediately to provide CPR and a defibrillator, but they could not save her.

Sanders’ family declined to comment for this story.

Ozmore said Sanders was lively and had a good sense of humor.

“Her personality was larger than life,” he said.

A memorial service for Sanders, who had finished sixth grade at St. Mark Catholic School in Wilmington, took place June 15, the (Wilmington) StarNews reported.

Searching for answers

Ozmore and an Inner Quest inspector are not sure why the zip line rope suddenly broke.

Inspector Randy Smith, who is the co-CEO of Inner Quest, said that in 36 years, he had never seen such a break. “This situation seems to be extremely unique,” Smith said.

Ozmore said that somehow, a section of the rope melted as a result of friction, possibly from another rope. “We’re going to re-create the conditions and try to come to a theory or final decision,” he said.

Smith described the break in the rope as a “cut” that was partly caused by melting but wouldn’t say whether it came from friction from another rope.

After the incident, the camp closed its zip lines and reassigned the worker in charge at the time of the accident in the interest of his well-being, Ozmore said.

“Whatever the case may be, you’re going to be shaken,” he said.

Fatality prompted oversight

Peter Melton, a spokesman for California’s Department of Industrial Relations, said the state expanded its zip line regulations in 2013 after a fatal accident.

“These zip lines were starting to become popular, and I think a lot of people were having questions about how safe they were,” he said.

Colorado decided to regulate commercial zip lines in 2012 after noticing a rise in popularity and hearing concerns from parents, said Scott Narreau, Colorado’s amusement ride and devices program manager.

“We decided that it definitely needed oversight,” Narreau said.

There are now 105 registered commercial zip lines in Colorado.

Since Colorado started keeping track in 2012, there have been five reported injuries requiring more treatment than basic first aid – one taking place at a YMCA in the Rocky Mountains. None of the injuries were fatal; one rider suffered broken ribs and other serious injuries.

Narreau said that tracking injuries may show patterns and help the state make rides safer.

“Hopefully it’s shed some light onto issues that we know to look out for,” he said.

Inspection policies

Though North Carolina does not require it, the YMCA of High Point has zip lines and challenge courses at Camp Cheerio inspected annually.

Inner Quest uses the Association for Challenge Course Technology’s standards. The company recommends clients get inspected “just prior to the course’s peak season or after the most dormant season,” its website reads. Inner Quest had last inspected the camp’s courses in March and trained staff on May 27, 28 and 29, Ozmore said.

“We’re committed to making certain that none of our other clients have anything similar happen to them,” Smith said.

In Asheville, Navitat Zipline Canopy Adventures also gets annual third-party inspections, course manager Brian Johnson said.

Johnson said two trained in-house staff members also check their courses every morning.

“If you can see it, look at it. If you can touch it, touch it,” Johnson said he tells staff. He said Navitat does more thorough, in-depth inspections four times a year, and also conducts an “arborist review” to check the trees anchoring the lines.

Officials at the U.S. National Whitewater Center did not respond to inquiries about inspections at the facility’s zip line.

Borishade, of the trade association, said zip line construction should be left to accredited builders.

“What we try to do is make sure people aren’t building backyard zip lines,” he said. “You really need to have that built by a professional.”

Taylor: 704-358-5353