OCEAN ISLE BEACH — The U.S. Coast Guard says a snapped tow rope began the tragic series of events that sent two female parasailers bouncing along the coast Friday until the sail snagged on a pier, killing them both.
Officials don't know yet, though, what caused the rope to snap, Commander John Nadeau of the Marine Safety Unit of the Wilmington Coast Guard Station said Saturday.
The women were identified as Cynthia Woodcock, 60, of Kernersville and Lorrie Shoup, 56, of Granby, Colo. They were on a trip with Woodcock's aunt, Sybil Carpenter of Cary, and another friend.
Carpenter, who was in the boat at the time, told family members the water was so choppy that some passengers feared it might overturn.
"We're trying to figure out why the owner of the boat would take them out" in those conditions, Tyisha Woodcock, Cynthia Woodcock's daughter-in-law, said Saturday.
She described her mother-in-law as an avid bird-watcher and gardener who was born and raised in Lenoir, where her funeral will be held next week.
Witnesses said Friday afternoon that the boat and suspended parasailers seemed motionless in high winds that preceded a storm the National Weather Service said was spawned by a low-pressure system coming from the Gulf of Mexico. The rough seas the boat battled as it tried to rescue the women were the result of Tropical Storm Danny, said Ron Steve, meteorologist with the service's Wilmington office. The low-pressure system from the Gulf swallowed the remains of Danny overnight as both moved up the coast.
Steve said monitors in Southport, north of Ocean Isle Beach, and North Myrtle Beach, S.C., registered gusts of 20 mph Friday afternoon. He said stronger winds could have occurred in a localized storm between the two monitors.
The Coast Guard does not regulate parasail businesses or any of the equipment associated with it, but Nadeau said he's sure that Coast Guard inspectors at least looked at the rope when the boat was last inspected in March.
Nadeau said that at the time of the accident, the boat was being driven by a Coast Guard-licensed master, and one other crew member was on board.
The boat is owned by N.C. Watersports. Rube McMullan and his son Barrett McMullan, owners and operators of the company and the Ocean Isle Fishing Center where it is located, did not return phone calls Saturday. A woman who answered the phone at the fishing center said she thought parasailing had been suspended but she wasn't sure.
Jay Jenkins, who pulled one of the women from the surf at the pier, said the women seemed to hover in air after the tow rope snapped, until strong wind caught their sail and sent them quickly toward the pier and ocean. He said they hit the water several times before the parasail became entangled in the pier.
"When the wind gets over 20 mph, it makes a huge difference,'' said David Sage, co-owner of Myrtle Beach's Ocean Watersports, which has been in business since 1981.
He said he had never heard of a parasailing accident such as that which took the two women's lives.
Nadeau said he doesn't have a timetable for the investigation but he hopes its findings can be used in determining whether safety regulations are needed.
The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.