In July, I was visiting my dad in Florida for his 70th birthday. The Friday before the big day, he told me what he wanted to do while I was there: go skydiving. I gulped some wine, said okay, and off we went the following morning, jumping out of a plane 13,000 feet in the air, attached to a couple of instructors who did this so often that they took a nap on the way up in the single-engine plane that seemed to be held together by duct tape.
I obviously lived to tell the tale, but when I read stories like the one about James "Jimmie" Horak Jr. and his student, I can't help but take a step back and wonder what could have been. Sadly, tragically, Horak passed away during a tandem jump, and his 26-year-old student is in critical condition with broken bones and head injuries. The scariest part is that no one is exactly sure at this point what went wrong.
Horak, 56, and his student never made it back to the airport where they were supposed to land, and Horak's body was found in mud in a wooded area about a mile from the airport in Southern Mississippi.
It seemed the main chute deployed, but Horak had to cut away the main one and deployed the backup. I can't even begin to imagine those horrifying final few moments, when you're flying among the clouds, seemingly at peace, with everything quiet and serene and beautiful around you, while the man who has your life in his hands behind you begins to notice that something is wrong. What these two must have gone through and what they must have been thinking has hit so disturbingly close to home in light of my recent personal experience.
"We just know that the main was cut away and the reserve was deployed," Gold Coast Skydivers owner Leanne Igo said. "Everything else beyond that is speculation."
When the other students realized that the pair never made it, they began a search, which comprised of a team of 30 skydivers on foot, a plane, a helicopter, as well as the local authorities. The son of a landowner in the area actually found the two while he was riding his Four Wheeler.
From all reports, it sounds like Horak was an experienced, well trained jumper. He retired from the Army Special Forces as a Major after serving for 28 years, was a Flight Surgeon, and also was a veteran of Desert Storm. He worked for the Veterans Administration as a physician's assistant as well. Probably the most heartwrenching part of this tragedy is that he leaves behind a wife and three children.
Horak was even a safety and training adviser appointed by the U.S. Parachute Association, and he trained other tandem instructors. Clearly the guy knew what he was doing -- he had made over 8,000 dives -- and though this is pure speculation, you can't help but wonder if all that training played a part in saving his student's life while sacrificing his own.
Such a sad story all around, though there's a risk inherent in activities like this, and hopefully his family can take solace in the fact that Horak passed away doing what he loved to do.
Would you ever go skydiving? Do stories like this make you hesitant?
Image via Laura Hadden/Flickr