Zip line safety examined after death at NC camp

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Zip lines, a popular ride for thrill seekers of all ages, are a  booming industry in North Carolina.

But now lawmakers are taking a closer look at zip line safety after the death of a 12-year-old girl at a popular summer camp in the mountains.

In June, Bonnie Sanders Burney died after the tether attaching her to a zip line at Camp Cheerio snapped.

“We worry about a lot of things every day at camp,” said David Ozmore, president and CEO of the YMCA of High Point, which runs the camp. “This is not one that we expected.”

Camp Cheerio is accredited by the American Camp Association and has hosted tens of thousands of campers since 1960. This is the first death at Cheerio’s campgrounds in the camp’s history. Ozmore estimates the zip line has had more than 30,000 successful runs prior to the accident.

“Sanders and her friend went down the zip line holding hands, the most innocent of scenarios you can possibly imagine,” said Ozmore.

Camp officials say she had zipped about 200 feet before falling about 20 feet to the ground.

How did it happen?

“We had our most experienced operator on the platform that actually put Sanders into her harness,” Ozmore said.

Camp Cheerio in the North Carolina mountains.

The zip line at Camp Cheerio has two lines that both start from a single location. Ozmore believes the tether holding Sanders was somehow draped over her friend’s line. As the zip started, the friction from the cable burned through the tether.

“The tether is rated at 7,000 pounds; you can put your car on that zip line and it would successfully make it to the other end,” Ozmore explained. “But the way the tether touched that second cable, the friction was just so severe it melted the tether.”

Ozmore said this zip line design is highly unique. He said a third-party inspector who viewed the zip line after the accident said it was the first he had seen in his career. The zip line was installed by Inner Quest, which is conducting its own investigation along with the local sheriff’s office.

WNCN Investigates asked Inner Quest for an on-camera interview for our story, but Director Randy Smith declined, saying, “Thank you for your inquiry.  I am very, very supportive of a story that tells the big picture about the safety of Challenge Courses.  However, it would be inappropriate for me to be involved in a media story at this time out of respect to the family of Sanders Burney and Camp Cheerio.” Meanwhile, the YMCA of High Point has shut down all of its zip lines.

A heightened concern for safety

Hundreds of people attended Burney’s funeral June 15 at St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington. While her death has been ruled an accident, it has spurred new conversations about zip line safety.

Memorial service in Wilmington.

The zip line industry is not regulated by the state of North Carolina. In fact, zip lines are specifically exempt, along with things like rock walls, roller skating rinks, wave pools, playground equipment and others recreational activities.

But the accident has captured the attention of lawmakers as well. New Hanover County Rep. Ted Davis Jr. added a zip line provision to a safety bill already in the works. The bill passed on Tuesday and is going to Gov. Pat McCrory.

Davis is a distant cousin of Burney. The bill calls on the Department of Labor to study whether the state should regulate zip lines, and why they were exempt in the first place.

Self-regulation, no enforcement

“The industry needs to take a hard look at itself,” Ozmore said.

While the state has not been involved, the industry isn’t un-regulated.

The Association for Challenge Course Technology, or ACCT, has been writing the unofficial rule book.

ACCT standards

Since 1993 it has gathered and set nationwide standards, accredited builders, and issued inspection certifications. The standards cover everything from construction materials to training.

ACCT sells its standards and certifications to builders, but there is no enforcement.

“The industry itself has done a very good job in North Carolina at self-regulating,” said Ken Jacquot president of Challenge Towers and former ACCT board member. “However as the industry expands and grows larger, my concern is that we don’t have everybody that’s necessarily following the standards,” he said.

Jacquot has been designing and building zip lines  all over the world for years, and said state regulation is worth a discussion.  He said in the past, insurance companies have helped put pressure on companies to build and operate zip lines according to accredited standards. Jacquot says, when done right, zip lines are safe, especially when compared it to other active activities such as school athletics.

Zip line accidents are very rare. One of the first known zip lining deaths in the U.S. happened in North Carolina back in 2006, when a 17-year-old Apex boy died from a fall at a church camp.

But WNCN Investigates found out no one officially keeps track of accidents and deaths. The state also doesn’t keep track of how many zip lines are operating across the state.

“That’s a little bit of a gap I feel right now,” said Jacquot. “I think the information is really important and somebody really needs to start paying attention and gathering that information.”

In the past, Jacquot said he created a group to serve as a resource for North Carolina to use to develop rules, as a handful of other states have done. He said the Department of Labor was not interested.

Moving forward

As for Camp Cheerio, Ozmore said he doesn’t want an activity or an accident to define the camp, but he does want to see the state take a closer look at whether any changes in regulation could help prevent another accident.

“As a community we need to have a conversation about regulation and who is watching over zip lines,” Ozmore said.

WNCN Investigates also took the issue to lawmakers.

“Even with regulation, you think about all the things we have regulated, sometimes accidents happen,” said N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, “But I certainly think that talking with stake holders to see if there are some deficiencies right now is probably worth doing.”

“I don’t want anyone to go through what the Burney family has been through or what Camp Cheerio has been through,” Ozmore said.RELATED LINKS

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