Boat driver charged in deadly parasailing crash into a Florida Keys bridge

A Florida Keys boat captain who told police he cut a cable tethered to a struggling parasail rig, sending a young mother and two small children plummeting into the water, was charged Thursday with causing the woman’s death.

Daniel Gavin Couch, 49, was booked into Monroe County jail on one count of manslaughter. He is being held on $100,000 bond.

The woman, 33-year-old Supraja Alaparthi from Schaumburg, Illinois, died on May 30, Memorial Day, after the rig, with her and the children still strapped in, was dragged across the waves by the wind-blown parasail up to two miles, eventually slamming them into the Old Seven Mile Bridge near Pigeon Key in the Middle Keys.

After the impact, all three people were still secure in the rig, but it was hanging from the bridge. Alaparthi was underwater. Her 9-year-old nephew, Vishant Sadda, was bent backward with his head submerged. Her son, Sriakshith, 10, was injured, but hanging upright.

Couch, however, didn’t maneuver his vessel under the bridge to try to release them “even though the family members on the parasail vessel later reported that they were begging him to help,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators stated in their probable cause affidavit.

By the time a flats boat guide watching the tragedy rushed his vessel to help the family, Supraja Alaparthi was likely dead.

The guide, John Callion, had two passengers on his boat. They cut the ropes of the harness and freed Supraja and the children. Passenger Linda Bell immediately began CPR on Supraja. Her husband, Eldon Bell, began the procedure on Vishant, according to the report.

Callion drove his boat to the Sunset Grille at the northern base of the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon. They transferred the victims to paramedics waiting at the dock.

Supraja was pronounced dead at the scene, FWC Investigator Paige Pestka said. Vishant was flown to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital near South Miami, and Sriakshith, who was less seriously injured, was taken to Fishermen’s Community Hospital, a hospital in Marathon.

Pestka said the people were in the water for about seven minutes before being rescued.

The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office charged Couch with Alaparthi’s death Thursday following an investigation by the FWC.

According to FWC investigators’ initial report, Couch said he cut the line with a pocket knife after the parasail “pegged,” meaning it filled with so much air from a strong wind gust that he feared it would drag the boat.

Three people hang from a parasail off the old Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys Monday, May 30, 2022, minutes before a high wind gust prompted the captain of the boat towing them to cut them loose.

The Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean waters that surround the Seven Mile Bridge were flat and the wind was calm right before Couch took 12 members of the family from the boat’s base at Captain Pip’s Marina in the city of Marathon out for what was supposed to be a fun adventure.

But witnesses, including John Callion, the flats guide who saved the children, said storm clouds were clearly on the horizon.

A photo from the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys shows a parasail draped on the old Seven Mile Bridge Monday, May 30, 2022. A woman was killed that day after the parasail was cut loose, then dragged her across the water and slammed into the bridge, authorities said.

Couch and his mate sent three other family members up in the parasail rig before it was Alaparthi’s and the boys’ turn, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in June by Supraja’s husband against Couch’s employer, Lighthouse Parasail Inc.

All the while, the weather was getting worse, according to the civil complaint.

By the time Supraja and the boys were hoisted about 200 feet in the air around 5 p.m., the conditions quickly deteriorated. The crew lost control of the parasail, which “began to sway violently back and forth,” the complaint states.

At this point, Couch and the mate could control neither the boat nor the parasail, and the decision was made to cut the line.

When they hit the water, Couch blew an airhorn meant to signal the people in the rig to pull a red strap attached to the chute, known as a “chute wrangler,” designed to help in the recovery of the parasail in the event the line is severed, the FWC’s Pestka wrote.

But the device was not deployed, so Couch moved the boat near the parasail so the mate could use a hook to try to rescue the people in the water. When that failed, the mate jumped into the water, but could not grab the chute wrangler, according to the arrest report.

Couch moved the boat again to try to grab the rig himself, but the wind blew the parasail over the vessel, sending the three people rushing toward the bridge, Pestka said.

Other charges

Along with manslaughter, Couch is charged with several misdemeanors relating to laws required to be followed by commercial parasail operators.

All parasail boats must have an operational VHF radio on which vessel crews can call the U.S. Coast Guard directly for help. Couch told investigators his boat had a VHF radio, but it was turned off. He said he tried calling 911 on his cellphone several times, but it did not work.

Pestka said his cellphone records show that is not true and “there were no outgoing calls placed for emergency service.”

VHF radios also transmit critical weather warnings. The National Weather Service forecast high winds, heavy rains and thunderstorms minutes before Couch embarked on the voyage, which by law would have prohibited him from allowing his passengers to go up on the parasail.

But video taken by the family indicates Couch knew the weather was too rough while Supraja and the boys were dangling in the air behind the boat. He was heard complaining about the waves “white capping” and saying the “clouds are too big.”

Investigators say Couch had other options other than cutting the tow line, like turning the vessel 180 degrees, or fast accelerating toward the parasail to lessen the tension in the line.

“The only measure that Couch took was to cut the tow line,” Pestka said.

Finally, although he told investigators he told the passengers how to pull the chute wrangler, it’s unclear if it would have worked even if Supraja tried to pull it because it was installed upside down, Petska said.

“In conclusion, Captain Daniel Couch’s cumulative and negligent actions on the day of the incident resulted in the death of Supraja Alaparthi, injuries to her son Sriakshith Alaparthi, and severe injuries to Vishant Sadda,” Petska wrote.