Climbing wall death in Grapevine a ‘bad accident,’ police say

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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(This story has been modified from the way it originally appeared on article to correct that the Summit Climbing Gym in Grapevine is affiliated with the Climbing Wall Association in Boulder, Colo.)

The woman who fell to her death Sunday from a rock climbing wall in Grapevine was the victim of a “bad accident,” police said.

The woman, Susan Lynn Mailloux, 52, of Irving, was reportedly a regular at the Summit Climbing Gym in Grapevine.

But late Sunday afternoon, she fell at least 25 feet and later died at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Mailloux was apparently not properly tethered to an automatic belay system, Grapevine Police Sgt. Robert Eberling said Monday. The safety system works to pick up any slack in the rope as a climber moves up the wall and controls the slack as a climber heads back to the ground.

“Everything at this pointing to a bad accident,” Eberling said. “There are no signs of foul play.”

Emails and phone calls to the Summit Climbing Gym in Grapevine gym were not returned to the Star-Telegram.

While Mailloux’s death appears to be a tragic accident, experts say it spotlights an industry with little regulation in Texas.

While amusement rides fall under the Texas Department of Insurance guidelines, gyms that are used for physical fitness or training are exempt from those regulations, said Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jerry Hagins. Facilities that host children’s parties or have portable rock climbing walls are regulated.

Summit’s website says it hosts birthday parties, group and team-building events and also has a portable wall that is available for rent. Summit, which also has gyms in Carrollton and Dallas, requires every customer to fill out a liability waiver before climbing, according to the website.

‘Redundancy is key’

A 2007 study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found rock-climbing injuries have increased as the popularity of the sport has soared. The study found more than 40,000 patients were treated between 1990 and 2007. The number of injuries reported increased 63 percent during that 17-year-period.

More than three-quarters of the injuries came from falls, with the seriousness of the injury related to the height of the fall. Patients who fell from a height of more than 20 feet were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than patients who were injured falling from 20 feet or lower.

In July, two employees at the Rocktown Climbing Gym in Oklahoma City were injured when they fell more than 30 feet to the ground, according to The Oklahoman newspaper. Both survived, and human error was believed to the cause, the newspaper said.

Philadelphia attorney Jeffrey Reiff, who has litigated amusement park accidents as well as zip line and climbing wall incidents, said facilities usually blame accidents on human error. In rock-climbing accidents, improper harnessing is often a key issue.

Reiff called for a federal oversight of the industry in an August column in U.S. News & World Report . He said that equipment in climbing gyms should be checked regularly by staff, and every climber’s harness should be double-checked before they are allowed to climb.

“Redundancy is key,” Reiff said.

Gym closed for 2 days

Bill Zimmerman, chief executive officer of the Climbing Wall Association in Boulder, Colo., said his organization contends that rock-climbing businesses shouldn’t be considered part of the amusement industry.

“Our position is climbing facilities aren’t amusements — they’re sports,” Zimmerman said.

Climbing gyms can take steps to mitigate the risk of accidents, but Zimmerman said there will always some danger.

“If you climb, you can fall, and if you fall, you can hurt or get killed,” Zimmerman said. “There’s nothing a business owner can do to eliminate the inherent risk of climbing.”

The trade association, which was formed in 2003, does not regulate climbing facilities, but it does have guidelines. These includes posters that can be placed in facilities to remind patrons and staff of safe procedures.

Summit is a member of the trade association.

The Climbing Wall Association has about 360 members and about 500-600 gyms nationwide. There are also thousands of climbing walls in schools, clubs and challenge courses, Zimmerman said.

While officials at the Grapevine gym couldn’t be reached for comment, a statement was issued on Summit’s website.

“There was a tragic accident today, September 22nd, at our Grapevine location,” the statement said. “Grapevine will be closed Monday and Tuesday. Please keep your hearts, thoughts, and prayers with the woman, her family, and the summit staff.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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