A zipline to calamity

A zipline to calamity

An American woman is seeking justice after a collision at an adventure park

The 2015 summer holidays of an American family took a tragic turn with an adventure park accident in Chiang Mai. What was meant to be a fun and carefree family experience abruptly turned into an ordeal involving the mother's loss of sight in one eye.

Lisa Sayre and her husband Rich, both 59, lived in Thailand between the years of 1995 and 1998. During this time Ms Syare gave birth to one daughter. Later, she and Mr Syare also adopted a Thai daughter into their family. They also have two sons. The Americans considered Thailand their second home where they felt safe.

By 2015, the time of the accident, the family had already moved back to Oregon, where they are originally from. However, Ms Syare and Mr Syare wanted to bring their daughters to Thailand to show them around their birthplace. It would also be the first trip back to their adopted daughter's motherland since she'd left with them to the US in 1998.

The four members of the Syare family arrived in Thailand in July 2015. Ms Syare, a former international schoolteacher, remembers being excited to return to her former home. Besides being a teacher, she was a professional dancer and had plenty energy for travelling and activities like trekking.

Once in Thailand, the Syare parents acted as guides to their daughters, drawing from their knowledge and experience from their previous stay in the country.

After a week in Bangkok, they decided to head north and show their daughters a different side of the country. They took along with them two Thai exchange students they had previously hosted in the US.

With all their excitement of returning to Chiang Mai, they couldn't possibly imagine anything going wrong.

FAMILY TRIP

Everything seemed to be going as planned, with the Syare daughters enjoying Thailand.

happy times: Lisa and Rich Syare with their two daughters three days before the accident. Photos: Supplied

As one of the country's most popular tourist destinations, Chiang Mai is known to have much to offer, from nature adventures to exposure to different cultural traditions.

The Syares searched online to see what the essential Chiang Mai experiences were. One of the first items they saw was the Flight of the Gibbon (FOTG), a zipline adventure park. The experience got really positive reviews and had even been featured on the popular TV show The Amazing Race Asia.

The family decided to book a tour of their own. Though they found the admission fee pricey, they thought the "must-do" experience would be well worth it.

LIFE-CHANGING ACCIDENT

The family enjoyed the lush, green scenery of the zipline park. They got to fly through the jungle like a gibbon, brushing up against the trees with exhilarating speed.

Going through the park took a total of three hours. At the end of the tour, they faced the longest zipline yet. Ms Syare lined up as the first person to go down it.

With the length of the line and heavy foliage, the receiving platform at the end of the line was not clearly visible.

A staff member used a walkie-talkie to communicate with another supervisor on the receiving platform. Though the family couldn't understand exactly what they were saying, they could tell that the signal from the radio was relatively weak.

When the staff gave Ms Syare the green light to go, she leaped off as she had done with all the previous platforms. But as soon as she left, she felt something was different.

As she flew down the line, she spotted another visitor zipping at a high speed her way.

The moment happened so fast, there was nothing they could do.

The two collided head on into each other. Ms Syare passed out.

She swung, her body hanging limply, from the line for 20 minutes as the guides strove to rescue her.

The split-second crash resulted in an evacuation flight and a month spent in hospitals in Bangkok and Chiang Mai for Ms Syare.

FROM ANOTHER SIDE

Chen Zhongchuan, a Chinese tourist also known as Felix, witnessed the whole incident from the receiving platform. His wife Zi Lei, or Hazel, collided with Ms Syare on that day.

medical evidence: X-rays of Lisa Syare's injured ribs and brain after the accident.

According to Mr Chen's letter to the Thai court, Mr Chen said the zipline experience had been exciting at first.

However, he found that the course was far more complicated than he had first expected.

He also felt he had not been sufficiently informed of the potential risks of the FOTG.

"The guides only gave simple instructions to 'go' and no clear instructions regarding whether it was completely safe for visitors to use the zipline," Mr Chen explained. "Every time I flew to a receiving platform, I almost got hit by a tree since the speed was so fast, I couldn't stop in time. I didn't get any training regarding how to control my speed."

Mr Chen explained that he was the first visitor to land on the receiving platform after the FOTG staff, leading the way.

"After I landed on the receiving platform, the guide talked into the walkie-talkie to ask the other guide on the sending platform to send the next person, and that's when Hazel flew down the line."

Unfortunately, from that last station, Ms Chen never reached the receiving platform as she was too light. She was left dangling a few metres away from it instead.

She began sliding back, gripping the line in her hands.

She stopped once she was at the halfway point, said Mr Chen.

"The Thai staff member talked into the walkie-talkie but I couldn't understand what he said. Around half a minute later, I saw Lisa coming and she collided with Hazel. Both of them showed no reaction after the collision and remained hanging at the middle of line," Mr Chen explained.

"It was a sudden accident, a big shock to me. I called out to Hazel to check whether she was OK but she only raised her hand to respond and didn't raise her head. Then the Thai staff member climbed to Hazel and Lisa on the line and pulled them back to the platform."

The FOTG staff member attached himself to a safety rope and climbed onto the zipline to get Ms Syare and Ms Chen, pulling them back towards the receiving platform.

A doctor, an American tourist, then came to check up on the women.

With no designated emergency health expert on the FOTG team and no first aid kit available on the site, he was their only immediate help, Mr Chen wrote in his statement.

"More than half an hour later, the FOTG staff came with a stretcher to carry Lisa to an ambulance, then came back to carry Hazel. We were taken to a small hospital and Hazel got some treatment there. Then they were transferred to a better hospital in Chiang Mai's downtown area," said Mr Chen.

"Hazel and I didn't need to pay at the first small hospital -- I assumed that FOTG paid the cost. However, we had to pay the cost at the second hospital. But I thought it should be FOTG's responsibility to cover all the costs at the hospital. It's a basic responsibility."

THE AFTERMATH

After the collision, Ms Syare received treatment in a Bangkok hospital. She had suffered brain trauma, damaging her optic nerves.

Due to her internal skull fractures, the doctor had two options: to operate on her brain or leave the damage alone. The former seemed the obvious choice at first, but the surgery was risky, with a high chance that her brain could face permanent damage.

rehabilitation: Lisa Syare has physiotherapy to recover from her injuries. Photos: Supplied

Mr Syare decided to forego the operation option.

As a result, Ms Syare is now blind in her right eye.

Though she no longer suffers outstanding pain, the accident has severely affected her life. She can no longer move her body as freely as she used to due to several fractured ribs.

The American doctor who treated Ms Syare in Bangkok described her case as having "some of the worst broken ribs I have ever seen".

Ms Syare can no longer perform dance as she used to, including ballet. However, after some physical therapy, she was able to move her body more fluidly again.

The Syares went back to the United States but returned to Bangkok at the end of last year for the court case.

The family has had to carry the heavy financial burdens of hospitalisation and physical therapy back in the US.

Before the accident, Mr Syare had been on track for retirement. His plans to retire have since been delayed as he's had to make more money to cover his wife's treatment.

As for Ms Chen, she has suffered lower back nerve damage, the treatment of which lasted one month. She was sent home from the hospital after a one-night stay.

Mr Syare told Spectrum that Mr Chen had sought the medical treatment and admission fee from FOTG. However, FOTG said it would only provide compensation if Ms Chen signed a document admitting that the accident was her own fault. The Chinese couple refused, according to Mr Syare.

facing another court case: Rich and Lisa Syare in Thailand.

Accidents are not uncommon at FOTG. Since it started operating, similar accidents, although less serious, have been known to take place at the zipline operation.

Ms Syare told her story to the media because she wanted her accident to be the last of its type to happen.

"It was criminally negligent of the company [FOTG]," she said.

She has since called for an improved safety protocol in the park.

Last month an Israeli family suffered a similar zipline collision at FOTG, with a mother and child sustaining injuries. They were both hospitalised in Chiang Mai and stayed in the intensive care unit for some time.

Authorities ordered the adventure park to close pending an investigation into the case.

In a press release following the incident, FOTG's operation manager Kriangkrai Srihaampai said: "In brief, a customer [with a child] had just completed a zipline crossing and landed on the platform. In turn, the next customer began crossing. The first customer fell backwards from the platform, resulting in a collision with the second customer. The customers remained attached to a cable at all times, which prevented them from falling to the ground.

"Flight of the Gibbon's staff acted quickly to get all three customers to safety and accompanied them to the hospital. The child was promptly discharged. The two adult customers are in hospital for the time being, but are expected to fully recover.

"We are extremely distressed by what happened and have a manager on hand at the hospital with the guest. We expect them to have a full recovery from this accident. Of course, we will do our utmost to take care of them and cover all their personal and medical expenses. Our customers are of paramount importance to Flight of the Gibbon."

The management team's preliminary review of the accident indicates there was no equipment failure of any type, but that the accident was caused by human error.

Nevertheless, FOTG's operation has been temporarily suspended so that a complete engineering inspection can take place, the company stated in a press release.

THE COURT CASE

After the accident that occurred in 2015, the Syares finally got the case to court for further investigation. In April 2016, the Chiang Mai provincial prosecutor filed charges against the two staff members who were serving as FOTG guides on that day, accusing them of negligence causing serious accident to others.

During the trial, the Thai staff claimed that Ms Syare was to blame for the accident. They described how she had panicked after seeing a cluster of nearby bees, and flew off the platform before the staff had given her the go signal. The staff argued that Ms Syare simply did not follow instructions.

The staff further said that it was common for visitors to slide backwards from the receiving platform. Given the length of the line, however, it was impossible for the staff to see the other platform clearly.

The staff later pleaded guilty. Originally, they faced a prison sentence of one year and a 6,000-baht fine. However, after pleading guilty, the penalty was slashed in half with a suspended sentence. The court further ordered them to pay 100,000 baht to Lisa's family in compensation.

"I really didn't want to do anything bad to the staff. They were not the ones who have to take responsibility for this. The company is the one who has to come out and settle this with me. All I ever wanted from these two staff members is for them to say sorry, which they did," Ms Syare said.

Yodsiri Taesiri, the representative of the case from Blumenthal Richter & Sumet Attorneys and Legal Counselors, told Spectrum that the civil case against the staff has been completed already and the American family has won the case.

In March, another civil case against Tree Top Asia company, the mother company of Flight of the Gibbon, will begin.

"We are suing the company for 50 million baht for the damage they caused to Lisa and her family," Ms Yodsiri said. "If things go as planned, we should know the results by no later than the middle of this year. I know we may not get the full amount but I hope it's enough to cover my client's treatment."

Spectrum tried to contact FOTG directly but management were not available for comment. However, the management at FOTG replied to a comment written by Mr Syare on TripAdvisor in August last year. The reply, on Aug 2, written by the FOTG guest relations manager, read: "We are saddened to hear about any malady regardless of the reason.

"This comment is in reference to a visit that took place in July 2015, over a year ago. However, much of what is stated in the comment is in dispute. The cause of the accident is now the subject of court proceedings -- the first such court proceedings in the history of the company. Given the ongoing litigation, and out of respect for the privacy of the other party, the company prefers not to comment further on the specifics of this case, other than to say that we are confident that the outcome will greatly build customer trust in the company's safety standards.

"Safety is always our highest priority. As a pioneer in this business, we had to develop safety protocols ourselves, and over the years we have continually upgraded them.

"Although we are approved by both the Tourism Authority of Thailand and hold a certificate under the nationwide amusement operators' regulations, our standards greatly exceed these requirements. We also have detailed information about our daily inspections and protocols available for review.

"At Flight of the Gibbon, with more than a million zipline crossings, we offer one of the safest adventure experiences in Asia. Safety is ingrained in our culture, and so the entire team takes pride in our record."

recovery: Lisa Syare has her injured eye checked at a Bangkok hospital.

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