Rock wall safety draws attention

Manufacturers focus on higher standards after the July death of a
22-year-old in Columbia.
Sunday, October 26, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:34 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Hauling in 25-foot-high mobile walls and one-and-a-half-ton boulders, a handful of climbing-wall manufacturers showcased their products during a trade show in St. Louis last week.

Among the vendors was Extreme Engineering, LLC of Newcastle, Calif., the manufacturer of the wall from which 22-year-old Christine Ewing fell to her death on July 15 outside a Mid-Missouri Mavericks baseball game.

Even though the owner of that wall, 30-year-old Marcus Floyd, did not buy it directly from Extreme Engineering, the company nearly cancelled its appearance at the St. Louis trade show. It did attend, but chose not to allow climbers on its wall because of the sensitive nature of the case, said Ross Butcher, Extreme Engineering’s chief executive officer, who attended the trade show. The event was organized by the National Parks and Recreation Association.

A tragic story

Floyd was indicted Friday by a grand jury on the charge of involuntary manslaughter.

“Everybody’s devastated for the girl, the family and for all parties involved,” Butcher said. “Our focus now is to do everything possible to ensure that it never happens again.”

Ewing, of Jefferson City, died of severe head trauma after the cable snapped from her harness, causing her to fall 25 feet from a portable climbing wall.

What went wrong?

The rusted cable supporting Ewing was sheathed in both black rubber and duct tape at the point of the break, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Extreme Engineering, however, switched to wrapping its cables with clear plastic tubing three years ago, Butcher said.

Floyd has said he had the wall inspected after he bought it used from an operator in Ohio. But a warrant signed in July by Boone County Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter alleges Floyd failed to obtain a permit to operate the wall or have it inspected. Under Missouri law, the rock wall qualified as an amusement ride and required a permit to operate as well as regular inspections.

Safety improves

Ewing’s death has sparked a nationwide effort to improve safety that began with Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Aug. 4 notice to amusement ride officials calling for regular inspections of mobile rock-climbing walls.

Portable rock-climbing walls are growing in popularity at amusement parks and fairs across the country, said John Dotson, president of the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials. While some states perform inspections, state laws are inconsistent and some don’t regulate operators at all, he said.

“I believe you’re going to see more states take a look at licensing portable rock walls,” he said.

Using synthetic rock-shaped grips while harnessed in by cables that prevent them from falling, climbers pull themselves up the mobile, collapsible, freestanding walls. When climbers reach the top, a mechanical pulley system slowly lowers them to the ground.

Since Ewing’s death, Extreme Engineering and two of its competitors, Vertical Reality and Spectrum Sports, have tried contacting their customers to warn them about regularly replacing worn-out cables and have begun encoding their cables with the dates they were manufactured, Butcher said.

Concerns remain

Still, many operators don’t follow maintenance instructions to replace cables every year, Butcher said.

“People are not being as cautious as they could be,” he added.

Nate Postma, president of Nicros, a climbing wall manufacturer based in St. Paul, Minn., said Ewing’s death could have been avoided.

“There’s a simple solution here,” he said. “Be fastidious in following guidelines and procedures and training.”

Helmut Levy, a sales manager for Vertical Reality who operated a 25-foot high wall at the trade show, said Ewing’s death served as a wake-up call for everyone in the rock climbing industry.

“People don’t take the care that they have to to keep climbing walls in excellent condition,” Levy said. “It’s like everything in life. You’ve got a car, you have to oil it to keep it running.”

Meanwhile, Patrick Eng, Floyd’s attorney, said he’s preparing his client’s defense.

“We will start cranking up for a fairly complex trial,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

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