First climbing wall death shocks industry

Christine Ewing, 22, of Jefferson City, Mo., became the first person to die from a climbing wall accident, when she fell from a portable wall in Columbia on July 14.
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Christine Ewing, 22, of Jefferson City, Mo., became the first person to die from a climbing wall accident, when she fell from a portable wall in Columbia on July 14.

Columbia Assistant State Fire Marshall Randy Cole told SNEWS that Ewing fell to the ground when a cable on the wall's auto belay system snapped. Ewing died from head and back injuries the morning of July 15 at the University of Missouri's University Hospital.

According to an Associate Press report, Ewing's mother, Kathleen Ewing Schmitz, saw the accident. In the AP report, Ewing said, "I just saw, like, the rope, kind of fly up out of the thing and she went backwards and kind of flipped backwards and landed on her head on the asphalt down below."

At the time of the accident, the 24-foot wall was set up outside Taylor Stadium, at the University of Missouri, Columbia, campus during a Mid-Missouri Mavericks baseball game. It had been an attraction in a children's area for 20 of the team's 24 games. However, the Mavericks did not operate the wall. The wall was owned and operated by Columbia Climbing Gym and Portable Wall, of Columbia, Mo.

Columbia Climbing Gym owner Marcus Floyd told SNEWS that his business—more than 10 years old—has not had any previous incidents of serious injury. Likewise, in his 20 years as a climbing guide and instructor, none of his clients have suffered serious injuries.

An investigation of the accident is ongoing by the MU Police Department, Columbia Fire Department and the Consumer Products and Safety Commission. Though no charges have been filed, the investigation could lead to criminal charges, including involuntary manslaughter and illegal operation of an amusement ride. (Climbing walls that do not use people for belaying are classified as amusement rides.)

Cole said that investigators are trying to determine why the cable snapped. A main point of concern is whether the cable failed because it was not properly inspected and maintained. University Police Sgt. Shawn Spalding filed an affidavit July 16 in the Boone County Circuit Court stating, "There was duct tape covering the point of break on the cable."

In an interview with SNEWS, Floyd refuted the idea that he duct taped the cable. Even if duct tape was used, it is not clear when such a repair would have been made. Floyd owned the wall for less than a year, and he bought it from a previous owner in Ohio, whom Floyd and investigators declined to identify.

According to Missouri law, the wall must be inspected annually, but Cole said there is no inspection paperwork on file for Floyd's wall. Also, there is no amusement ride permit on file.

Floyd said that he did have the wall inspected about a month before the accident, adding, "My routine is to inspect regularly. I climb on the wall, and even have instructors climb on the wall." He said he did not file an inspection report before the University of Missouri event because he was told it would not be necessary. Also, Floyd said he did not acquire an amusement ride permit because he contacted several government offices and was told he did not need a permit because he was operating a climbing wall.

The wall owned by Floyd was manufactured by Extreme Engineering in Newcastle, Calif. Extreme Engineering President Jeff Wilson, who is now a witness in the investigation, said he flew to Columbia to inspect the wall and auto belay device. He said he believes the accident occurred because of a lack of maintenance.

Wilson invented the first hydraulic auto belay device and said that cables should be replaced each year, or at least every 10,000 cycles or if there is general degradation. He said his company has established thorough inspection procedures for customers, and diligently encourages them to inspect regularly. He noted that since he invented the auto belay in 1996, there has not been a single incident where the product has failed, and he estimates there are as many as 1,600 cable systems in use today.

Ewing's death may impact procedures in the climbing wall market, but Wilson and other experts do not think that people will abandon auto belay devices. "I think they're sound systems. I own them, and I'll continue to use them," said Rich Johnston, owner of Seattle-based Vertical World climbing gym, and chairman of the newly formed Climbing Wall Association.

Floyd said one result of the accident may be that climbing wall owners will back up auto belays with standard rope-belay systems. He said this is a practice he is likely to follow.

Even if auto belays are not greatly affected, there could be other ramifications. Insurance rates for climbing walls may rise, said Bret Van Leeuwen, president of Stratus Insurance Services, which insures Floyd's company and a large number of other climbing wall companies.

Though rates may rise, Van Leeuwen said Ewing's accident will not necessarily result in Floyd being dropped from coverage, if it plays out that his company followed necessary procedures. Floyd said he is confident that his business will survive, though he said the greatest threats to his business are statements such as those in Sgt. Spalding's affidavit, which he deemed "defamation."

SNEWS View: Keep a close eye on this investigation and possible lawsuits to follow, because the ramifications could be great. As Johnston said, "It's like a big old stone was thrown in the pond," and the ripple effect may stretch far and wide. For example, the Consumer Products Safety Commission has entered the picture, which could result in greater government oversight of climbing walls, and portable walls in particular. We wouldn't be surprised to see changes in standard operating procedures for portable climbing walls—e.g. greater inspection oversight and required ground padding. We are also hearing that there will likely be debate over whether helmets should be required on climbing walls. Jed Williamson, chair of the Safety Committee for the American Alpine Club, told Columbia investigators, "Helmets have a primary use: to protect one's head from falling rocks, ice, or any objects (carabiners, water bottles,etc). Helmets are not seen as a reliable source of protection in the event of falls." He adds that helmets might actually be dangerous on artificial climbing walls, because they can snag protruding handholds and throw a climber off-balance. These are just the details. In a broader view, climbing walls will no longer exist off the radar screen. Within the amusement ride world, they have floated in a sort of gray area, and this will no longer be the case.

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