How to survive a sky diving accident (or any other crisis).

The state of the universe.
Feb. 4 2009 1:22 PM

I'm Plunging to My Death ... Now What Do I Do?

How to survive a sky diving accident (or any other crisis).

The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life by Ben Sherwood.

Why do some people live and others die? How do certain people make it through the most difficult trials while others don't? Why do a few stay calm and collected under extreme pressure when others panic and unravel? In The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life, Ben Sherwood sets out in search of people who survived amazing ordeals—a woman whose heart was pierced by a knitting needle, a bicyclist crushed by a 21-ton truck, a pilot ejected from a jet traveling faster than the speed of sound—to figure out whether there's a formula for staying alive. In this piece, adapted from The Survivors Club, Sherwood examines sky diving accidents—why do some people have the wherewithal to pull the cord while others freeze up?

What would you have done? You're harnessed to an instructor for your very first tandem parachute jump at 13,000 feet. Plummeting from the airplane, you quickly sense that something isn't right. Your teacher has fallen completely silent. You call out, but there's no response. The instructor isn't speaking or moving. At 5,000 feet, you realize that your life is entirely in your hands. Would you freeze or stay cool?

This was the scenario Army Pvt. Daniel Pharr faced on Saturday when he jumped out of a plane over South Carolina. Pharr felt completely safe strapped to an experienced instructor with 8,000 previous jumps. But after the 49-year-old teacher—Chip Steele—pulled the chute, everything went quiet. "I knew something was wrong," Pharr told ABC's Good Morning America. "My survival instinct just kicked in."

Using a few tips he learned from an instructional video on the ground and from watching parachutists on TV, Pharr pulled the toggles and managed to land safely in a field. The 25-year-old quickly administered CPR to his instructor, but it was too late. Steele was dead of an apparent heart attack.

It's not easy for a newbie sky diver to land safely, especially with a dead man strapped to his back. If he had pulled on the handles too hard, for instance, Pharr might have gone into an uncontrollable spin. And yet, when everything went wrong, Pharr somehow did everything right. Over the last two years, I've interviewed hundreds of men and women like Pharr who beat the odds and survived extreme challenges. Each time, I asked: How did they do it? And what do they know that the rest of us don't?

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To solve the mystery of who survives, it's useful to examine those who don't. In June 2002, a small group of people at the tiny municipal airport in East Troy, Wis., heard a terrible thud. It didn't take long to discover the reason. Near a hangar they found the crumpled body of Luca Bertetto, a 31-year-old engineer from Italy who had recently moved to the area. With 33 previous parachute jumps under his belt, Bertetto was last seen at an altitude of 3,000 feet plummeting toward earth. He was sky diving along with six other jumpers from the local Sky Knights Parachute Club.

No one saw him "go in"—the sport's euphemism for hitting the ground. Investigators found that the handles on his main parachute, emergency cutaway, and reserve chute were in place and had not been pulled. For some reason, the safety device designed to trigger the chute automatically at low altitude also had not fired. A coroner concluded that Bertetto showed no signs of medical problems during the jump and died of massive internal injuries. Why did this young man fall from the sky without opening his main or backup chutes? Did he simply forget to pull the handles? Suicide was ruled out as a possibility. The U.S. Parachute Association calls it a tragic mishap. Survival experts believe it's a case study of why too many people die when they shouldn't and how we can often fail to save ourselves.

James Griffith is one of the country's top experts on what goes wrong when people die sky diving. When we speak, he's just returned from a busy day in south-central Pennsylvania, where he jumped four times from 14,000 feet. At age 40, he's a veteran sky diver and part-time instructor with more than 3,000 jumps over the past 10 years. In his real job as a psychology professor at Shippensburg University, he has studied all of the reports of fatal sky diving incidents going back to 1993. "Every time you jump, you literally are saving your own life," he says. "Each time, you are cheating death in a way." Yes, with good training and equipment, the sport is reasonably safe, "but there's always an element that something could go wrong."

If you examine all of the accidents, Griffith says, it turns out what happened to Luca Bertetto isn't too surprising. There's even a name for it. It's called a "no-pull"—when the sky diver simply fails to deploy the main or reserve chutes. Another variation is known as a "low-pull," when a jumper activates the parachute at a low altitude, often too late for survival. Every year, according to Griffith, around 35 people die in sky diving accidents out of some 2.5 million jumps. That's one fatality for every 71,000 leaps. (For comparison purposes, your chances of dying this year from a regular fall right here on earth—say, down the stairs—is one in 20,000.) Ten percent of all parachuting deaths—a small fraction—involve no-pulls or low-pulls. So, what goes wrong? In short, human error.

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