Before she fell to her death from a climbing wall during a Mid-Missouri Mavericks game last summer, Christine Ewing used to head to the gym most mornings with her mother, Kathleen Schmitz.
Now, Schmitz said, the gym conjures up too many painful memories — although they’re nothing compared to what she remembers of the evening of July 14, 2003.
Ewing, 22, of Jefferson City, had waited in line behind her 8-year-old brother, Bradley, for a chance to scale the 25-foot wall. While Schmitz, Bradley and two friends looked on, a helmetless Ewing reached the summit. But upon descent, Ewing’s support cable snapped and she fell about 20 feet onto the asphalt below, suffering massive head and back injuries. She died the next day.
“It was a family night for us, and we expected to have fun and be safe,” Schmitz said. “People just bring these things in and set them up, and (safety) never crossed our minds.”
Far from the horrifying scene at Taylor Stadium, the climbing wall’s owner, Marcus Floyd, was on a rock-climbing trip at Devil’s Tower, Wyo. Having entrusted operation of the wall to a 16-year-old employee, Floyd learned of Ewing’s fall via cell phone.
Faulty cable caused fall
Investigators determined that the cable Ewing had relied on to descend the wall was corroded and frayed. The damage was shielded from view beneath a black rubber sheath and a layer of duct tape.
Floyd, the 31-year-old owner of Columbia Climbing Gym and author of “Climber’s Guide to the Midwest’s Metamorphic Forms,” said last September that Ewing’s death was the only blemish on his 10-year record. He didn’t understand how a problem with “the way something was made” — and the fact that the damage to Ewing’s safety cable was not readily detectable — could cause him to be deemed a criminal.
That will be up to a jury to decide this week. Floyd’s trial on a charge of first-degree involuntary manslaughter begins Tuesday in Boone County Circuit Court. If he’s found guilty, Floyd could spend up to seven years in prison and be subject to a $5,000 fine.
According to prosecutors, Floyd “recklessly caused the death of Christine Ewing by keeping a worn-out safety cable on his climbing wall.” Jurors will decide whether Floyd knew, or should have known, that the cable was unsafe.
Floyd’s attorney, Pat Eng, will argue that Ewing was the victim of a horrible misfortune, not criminal negligence.
“She (Ewing) was a beautiful young girl,” Eng said. “It’s tragic. But unbeknownst to Marcus, this thing was like a defective tire. It was going to blow on somebody, and unfortunately it blew on her.”
Replacing cables and helmet use not part of state law
Floyd’s climbing wall, a portable model with a mechanical-belay system, was manufactured in 1999 by a California company. Floyd bought the used wall in an eBay auction in September 2002 from an Ohio man, Jason Dietz. He paid about $13,000, Eng said.
Mechanical-belay systems allow climbers to descend with the help of a mechanized pulley. Missouri law classifies such systems as amusement rides and requires operators to have permits. Wall owners must have $1 million worth of insurance and have their equipment inspected annually, preferably by a professional certified by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
State law, however, does not specifically address the replacement of climbing wall cables, nor does it mandate the use of helmets or safety mats.
Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane declined to discuss the case. But court records show that prosecutors will argue Dietz informed Floyd that the middle cable of the mechanical-belay system was frayed and unusable. The seller had placed duct tape over a damaged section, according to court records, and told Floyd to have the cable replaced before use. In addition, the manufacturer, Extreme Engineering LLC, had reminded Floyd by e-mail to have his wall inspected and the cables replaced annually or after every 10,000 climbs.
According to court records, Floyd never replaced the cables, which run about $150 each. Indeed, prosecutors will argue that the cables hadn’t been replaced since the wall was built in 1999.
Eng contends that Floyd was, in essence, duped. Dietz assured Floyd that the wall had been “regularly maintained,” Eng said, and that he never warned Floyd of any potential danger. Floyd had allowed his two young nieces to climb the wall less than two weeks before the accident, and had climbed the wall’s middle cable frequently. Eng said no rational person would put himself and loved ones at risk to save a few hundred dollars.
When he bought the wall, Floyd did not know its cable-replacement history or how many climbers Dietz had accommodated, Eng said; the new owner was relying on the seller’s assurances that the wall was in “good working order” at the time of the sale, Eng said.
Court documents indicate that the rubber sheath, intended to protect climbers’ hands, shielded from view about 30 inches of the cable, including its frayed and rusty harness end. The cable was also wrapped beneath the sheath in a layer of duct tape that became visible after the cable snapped.
Eng will argue that, beyond his client’s inability to see the existing damage, the cables had not yet reached the manufacturer’s one-year recommendation for replacement. Floyd had owned the wall for 10 months, moreover, and as of July 2003 had not had 10,000 climbers, Eng said. Eng will call to the stand John Randick, a St. Louis County mechanical inspector. Though Randick is not certified by NAARSO, he will testify that he was at a church picnic in St Louis, about 40 days before Ewing’s fall, to inspect amusement rides. Floyd’s wall was an attraction at the picnic, and Eng said that until that event, Floyd was unaware that annual inspections were required for portable walls like his.
Randick agreed to look at the wall on the spot, Eng said, and he reported no potential malfunctions.
The testimony of Dietz, the man who sold the wall to Floyd, will be important to both sides in the case. Eng will seize on a March exchange that Dietz had with Mike Wilson, a local investigator hired by Eng.
Eng said that Wilson asked Dietz in a telephone interview if he had shown Floyd the broken middle cable before selling him the wall. A transcript of the interview, provided by Eng, shows that Dietz replied, “To the best of my knowledge, I didn’t physically show him that.”
“It’s about Marcus’s mental state — he didn’t know,” Eng said. “Hindsight’s always 20/20, but that inspector looked at the wall thoroughly, handled all the cables and sheaths and approved it as safe.”
Legislation could put climbing walls under "amusement ride" inspection guidelines
Schmitz said she hasn’t made up her mind where Floyd’s guilt or innocence is concerned, but she hopes this week’s trial will allow her to see all the facts of her daughter’s death clearly.
“Whether or not he (Floyd) pays for what happened doesn’t solve anything or make anything better,” she said. “We just don’t want something like this to happen again.”
The problem, said Jim Barber, a communications chairman for NAARSO, is the myriad regulations that governs climbing walls. States, cities and counties have different sets of rules, he said, and the burden of knowing any given area’s policies rests squarely on a wall’s owner or operator.
The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission has recommended closer inspection of portable climbing walls, especially those built before 2000 because they feature the black rubber sheaths that make thorough inspections difficult. Cables manufactured since 2000 typically have a clear plastic covering to protect climbers’ hands.
Recent legislation awaiting the signature of Gov. Bob Holden — to define all climbing walls more than 10 feet tall as “amusement rides” subject to inspection and insurance regulations — probably wouldn’t have prevented Ewing’s death. However, Schmitz hopes that other wall owners are watching the Floyd case and that, whatever the outcome of the trial, they will take more responsibility for their patrons’ safety.
Schmitz and her family have been anxiously awaiting the week ahead. The recollections of the night that claimed the life of her “Chrissy” — a young optimist with a longtime boyfriend, a full-time job and a habit of calling home daily — will be excruciating. But, in a way, they will be welcome.
“I really think that when everything is done and over,” she said, “that’ll be our time to grieve.”