A year later, parents look to law

They lobbied for new rules for climbing walls after daughter’s fatal fall.
Sunday, May 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:45 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

MOKANE — Christine Ewing was an adventurous young woman, recently living on her own, who loved spending time outdoors with family and friends.

It was a family outing to a ball game that led to the unthinkable.

Last July, the 22-year-old — known to loved ones as Chrissy — scaled a climbing wall set up outside a University of Missouri stadium in Columbia where the Mid-Missouri Mavericks minor league baseball team was playing.

Relatives watched as a safety cable suddenly snapped and she plummeted more than 20 feet to pavement below. Ewing, who was from Jefferson City, died the next day of severe head trauma. Authorities said the cable was rusty and wrapped in duct tape. The wall’s owner faces trial next month on involuntary manslaughter charges.

Now, nearly a year later, her parents take comfort that they have done something about it. The tragedy that took their daughter’s life inspired them to work with legislators to make state law tougher.

“Ever since the accident, it’s been our goal to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” said Joanna Ewing, Christine’s stepmother.

She and her husband, Craig, Christine’s father, talked about the past year while sitting in the hair salon Joanna runs next to their home near Mokane. Christine smiles down at them in a photo that was taken at her birthday just a couple of weeks before her death. Her grave, about a mile down the road, is surrounded by flowers of bright pink — her favorite color — along with notes, candles, angel statues, beads, even lipstick.

The bill, passed 10 months after Ewing’s fall, adds all climbing walls higher than 10 feet, dry slides higher than 20 feet and bungee cord attractions to the list of amusement rides subject to state regulations. Such rides must be inspected annually, and the attractions’ owners must provide proof of that inspection and obtain a $15 state permit.

The bill by Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton, also allows state inspectors to make spot checks of rides and shut them down if there is a problem. To reopen, the problem must be fixed and rechecked by a state inspector, for which the owner pays a fee to the state.

Last year, according to the state fire marshal’s office, the state issued more than 1,000 amusement ride permits. Supporters of the bill are most concerned about traveling carnivals and attractions and hope the threat of a spot inspection will make owners keep their rides in good condition.

“One inspection every year when you’re tearing down rides and setting them back up may not be adequate,” said assistant state fire marshal Randy Cole. “Obviously we’re not going to be able to do every ride that sets up in the state. (But) if they know now we’re checking further into safety issues on rides, maybe they’re going to be more prone to making sure all the safety features are in place.”

Two more inspectors also will be hired to check amusement rides, and they will help with elevator inspections in the off months.

Meanwhile, the trial of the wall’s owner, Marcus Floyd, is approaching. Authorities say Floyd failed to obtain a state permit and did not have the wall inspected annually.

The bill might not have made a difference in the Ewing case. That wall was mechanically operated, so it already was subject to state regulations, officials said. But the bill makes clear that climbing walls of all kinds must pass muster.

Floyd’s lawyer said the contraption was checked out at a church event in St. Louis County about 40 days before Ewing’s fall and worked fine.

“It wouldn’t have changed a thing,” said Floyd’s attorney, Patrick Eng. “The particular cable in question was examined by this inspector, and no defect was found.”

Still, legislators and the family say it’s time amusement ride owners know they must follow the law in Missouri.

“You’re talking about someone’s life for a safety cable,” Joanna Ewing said. “We’re not going to see her get married, have children or anything because of a $150 cable.”

Some lawmakers also have a personal stake in the issue. The teenage nephew of Sen. Delbert Scott was killed seven years ago at a Lake of the Ozarks attraction in which people climbed a tower and then slid down a cable.

Scott’s 19-year-old nephew climbed the tower and then fell about 30 feet, dying the next day from his injuries, Scott said.

Scott, R-Lowry City, said he went back to the scene after the funeral to check out the device, and the attraction had been taken away already. The family never learned what happened.

“We don’t know what went wrong,” he said. “There’s some real stories out there. It’s not just more regulations; it’s to save somebody’s life.”

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