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How to Not Get Killed by Beach Umbrellas, According to a Guy Who Would Know

Ed Quigley, who lost his left eye to a flying umbrella in 2015, now runs Beach Umbrella Safety, a blog dedicated to helping others avoid such a fate.

by Alex Norcia
Jul 25 2018, 7:58pm

Left: photo via Flickr. Right: photo via Ed Quigley's Facebook

July, 7, 2015, at about 3:13 PM, was for Ed Quigley like most other July 7ths at about 3:13 PM. He was sitting on Delaware's Bethany Beach with his wife's side of the family, as he'd been doing every Fourth of July weekend for the past 37 years. "It was a beautiful afternoon," according to the text in a video that Quigley uploaded onto YouTube. "The air was hot; but stirred by a constant breeze." Here was Ed, on vacation, away from his home in Virginia—his toes buried, leaning back in his chair, the ocean stretched out before him. He had not a care in the world. Until around a minute later.

It was then that an oak-shafted, seven-foot-long beach umbrella, ripped out of the sand by the wind, flew straight into his left eye. He coughed up blood. An ambulance arrived and took 40 minutes, in traffic, to get Quigley to the hospital, at which point he had to be moved, via helicopter, to a different hospital. The umbrella had breached his brain cavity. Multiple surgeries, over the course of several months, followed. Cosmetic, reconstructive—you name it. He had double vision, but he could still (sort of) see. He could not smell, though, and lost his sense of taste. In October 2015, when doctors performed one of his last operations, to inspect his upper sinus and plug up the breach in his brain cavity, his heart stopped. Quigley was dead, he said, for 23 minutes.

But he came back to life. And since his accident, has been diligently running a blog called Beach Umbrella Safety. Its mission? To stop this from happening to anyone else—and his advice, which he's also shared in an episode of Inside Edition, seems more timely now than ever.

It turns out it's less of a freak accident than one might think. Just this last week alone, two separate women have been impaled by rogue beach umbrellas: One was a tourist from the UK attempting to relax on the Jersey Shore, and the other was a Pennsylvania native just trying to catch some rays in Maryland. (In 2006, according to the New York Times, a Lower East Side resident won $200,000 from the State of New York for injuries sustained from a flying beach umbrella.)

So, with summer and its dangers once again in full swing, we spoke with Ed Quigley about his life since the incident—and how best to stay safe from beach umbrellas this season.

VICE: How has your life changed since the accident?
Ed Quigley: I was a consultant in the computer industry, and I was working for the Federal Reserve when this happened. Although I was 67, I wasn't planning on retiring really anytime soon. But this felt like it forced me into retirement. Not totally a bad thing, but I retired a bit earlier than I planned—you know, with the financial crash that happened a decade before, I was trying to recoup a little. So that was a downer, but I made some lifestyle changes, and it wasn't too bad.

I have no sense of taste or smell, and I love to cook. I was kind of a foodie, in that sense, so that's changed dramatically. I still cook once in a while—you know, things I know how to cook—but I don't experiment as much as I did. I like to do watercolors and oils, and I have trouble figuring out when the brush is going to touch the canvas. I've had to change my whole style around that.

The operations were successful, though I did die on the operating table when they did the brain surgery, and that was pretty traumatic for my wife—she went through the anguish, and I went through the pain. And she still is kind of protective. I'll be going out the door, and she'll say, "Be careful!" And I'll say, "Oh, what can happen?" [Laughs] And she'll say, "You know want can happen!"

But I'm a very upbeat person. I was very physically fit before this happened, and though I've had three years of downtime, I'm finally back to working out again.

My life is—good. I do have the objective to spread the word about the dangers [of beach umbrellas] and share the precautions to take.

And I'm writing now, too. I've written a short book for teens, and just finished up a short story for a writing group I'm in—which will hopefully get published—so I've got a lot going on. I've always had more hobbies than time.

How much advocacy do you do then, particularly with your blog?
So it's all funded mainly out of my pocket, and while there's a spot you can donate on my website, I don't push that. I have a Facebook page that I pay to have pushed out to larger audiences. As far as advocacy is concerned, it's things like this—your website. Every spring, I contact the local media in my area [near Richmond, Virginia], and unfortunately, they don't always pick up on it, and they didn't this year.

There was a woman who died in Virginia Beach [from a beach umbrella] two years ago. My accident was the year before that, and afterward, I had reached out to whoever I could, but only one local station did an interview with me. And then when that woman was killed in Virginia Beach, they came back and did another one with me the next year, and Inside Edition did one as well. And they're running that same story again this year, because of these new accidents.

So the big question: What are some safety tips to make sure your umbrella doesn't go flying and, say, strike someone in the eye?
When you've got a wind picking up on the beach, even if you follow any of the number of lifeguard posts or videos on the internet on how to secure an umbrella in the sand—you rock it back and forth in the sand, and you put the dome of the umbrella into the wind... well, it doesn't matter if it's into the wind or not. The dome of an umbrella is actually an airfoil, so it works like an airplane wing. If you've got air at high speeds going across it, it creates a low pressure area. So even if it's facing into the wind, it can pull out of the sand.

My primary advice is this: If it's windy, take down the umbrella. Never leave an umbrella unattended. And to be really safe, use a safety device, which I outline on my website. I recommend some in the advice section—BeachBUB is probably the one I trust the most. It gets 100 to 120 pounds of sand into the base of the umbrella. Screws—well, they're OK, and definitely better than just a shaft. But again, you can pull those right out of the sand. Having a vented umbrella helps, too—it prevents the air from having too much of an effect.

This does seem like a freak accident, but maybe it's less freaky than I'm making it out to be. What do you think?
It's like most things: Unless it's at the sensational end of the spectrum, it doesn't get much attention. So I found this source of data—it's called Hospital-Data—and they document thousands of umbrella accidents a year. Now, they're not all beach umbrellas. It could be someone walking down the street, and they get a spoke in the eye or something. And one of the things I want to do this year is reach out to them to see if they'd share the detail data. I'm a computer guy, so I can write some algorithms that will find just the large umbrella incidents. So it's not just beach umbrellas—like it could be, say, in restaurant settings. Like what happens is someone will get whacked in the head, and they'll get ten stitches, and that doesn't get reported in the newspaper; that's just collected by Hospital-Data. I did look through manually, of about 150 of their documents, and virtually half of those were beach-umbrella related. Like someone, because of an umbrella, dislocated their shoulder. It's amazing the things umbrellas can do that aren't life-threatening.

Do you still go to the beach?
I've never missed a year—even the year after my accident, I was there with the whole family.

You mentioned your wife still worries about you when you go outside. How do other people treat you, or react to what you went through?
I'll be standing in line to get ice cream, and I'll strike up a conversation with someone, and then they'll eventually go, "Oh, so what happened to your eye?" And I'll tell them my story, and I have a card that explains the website and the mission—and sometimes I'll give them a bunch of cards, so they can pass them around to people they know.

With the two incidents this past week, in New Jersey and Maryland, I have to ask: How many people called or texted you about them?
Oh, everyone. And from all over. I have family and friends on the West Coast finding those articles. The internet, it shuffles everything around. A lot of people see this kind of stuff. One of my reconstructive surgeons is from England, and he called me the day after the woman got struck with one in the ankle and asked if I knew about it. I mean, he saw it on the BBC.

Again, just to reiterate: I really believe people just don't understand this danger. If it's windy, take down the umbrella. Don't run in the water or whatever and leave the umbrella. Use the safety devices.

And if you're sitting on the beach in 35 MPH wind, you're probably not all that comfortable anyway, umbrella or not.

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