I Fell 14,000 Feet In A Skydiving Accident (And Didn't Die)
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"Any last words?" the skydiving instructor joked right before we jumped out.
"Yeah!" I yelled into the wind. "I hope my parachute opens!"
Spoiler: It didn't.
Sometimes The Parachute Just Doesn't Open
After the first few seconds of ecstatic freefall, I felt the parachute try to open. But it didn't feel strong at all. It's supposed to be a powerful jolt that immediately starts you decelerating, but it was nothing but a tiny tug. And when I looked up, a crumpled pile of fabric was flailing in the wind. The chute hadn't opened. And I wasn't slowing down.
"Fuck," said Bill.
Bill was my instructor, and he was strapped to my back. That's how tandem skydiving works: The customer, who has no training in skydiving, is harnessed to the instructor, who's done this a million times before. It's the safest way to skydive. When I met Bill that morning, strutting toward me with spiked black hair and slick sunners, he seemed supremely confident. But now he was panicking, and that was all the confirmation I needed that this jump had gone horribly wrong.
We began spiraling out of control. We spun so rapidly that one of my shoes flew off and was lost forever, even though the staff had gone to some trouble to make sure all my clothing was tight and secure before I boarded the plane.
Parachutes can fail. There are no official stats on how often this happens -- the community throws around the ballpark figure of once every thousand times -- and that's because failure isn't such a big deal, since there's always a backup. When the main chute fails, you release the reserve chute, which is packed very carefully and so fails very rarely. Only one in every 150,000 jumps ends in a fatality, thanks to the reserve chute.
"Keep your knees up," said Bill, aiming to steady us as much as possible while he let the reserve chute loose. He pulled a cord, and the chute popped out. And above me, I saw it hopelessly tangled with the chute that was already out there. Neither chute had inflated.
That's When I Realized I Would Die
"Are we going to die?" I screamed to Bill.
"Probably," he said.
Death was right there in front of me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I knew I was going to hit the Earth and simply stop existing. No more me. And my family was going to watch it happen.
Yes, I'd invited my whole family to watch me die. I had gotten a skydiving voucher for my 21st birthday, and it wasn't until after my 22nd birthday that I finally used it. I was living with my boyfriend, and the two of us had driven to the airport that morning to meet the family, who were making a day of it. Mum and Dad. My three sisters, plus their husbands and kids. Being surrounded by my large, loving family helped me deal with the nerves.
"Aren't you nervous?" they'd asked.
"It will be a piece of cake," I lied. Of course I was nervous. But I played my role well. That's what I do. I'm Brad! I'm wacky and fun! Skydiving isn't scary for me! Woo!
My family watched me fall from the ground below. One of my sisters vomited, I later learned.
The Earth rose up, and I smashed into it.
Surviving A Skydive Without A Parachute Does Happen
... Which is to say, the chances are minuscule, rather than nonexistent. There simply aren't enough cases of people surviving a failed parachute for any kind of meaningful statistics on the subject. But it does happen. In my case, the reserve chute inflated a couple hundred feet from the ground, which was too late to really break the fall, but it did something. And even the uninflated chutes slowed me down some, so I wasn't going to hit the ground at 120 mph terminal velocity, like someone falling freely. Bill's instructions moved us into the most survivable position. And the surface you hit makes a huge difference. We didn't slam into a concrete sidewalk; we flopped onto a golf course.
My first thought was "I'm alive!" My second was "I'm a paraplegic." I couldn't feel my legs or move my neck. I could feel the rest of my body, and it was all unbearable, searing pain. I moved my fingers and felt the parachute on top of me. I threw it off, and my fingers met water. We had bounced half into a lake. My legs were submerged. If we'd fallen directly into the lake, we probably would have died -- water's actually the worst surface to hit, because liquids can't compress at all in that scenario.
Bill was blue and unconscious. We were on top of each other but slightly perpendicular, so I could see his face. I thought he was dead. And I had killed him. It turned out he wasn't, but he was in a world of pain, even moreso than me, and he couldn't speak. He tried to move himself away, but our harness was still tightened together. We were strapped to each other and too injured to unhook ourselves.
Then I heard shouting and running. Three strangers had driven over in a golf cart. We had very much enlivened this trio's game. Two of them waded into the water and unstrapped the harness, while another used his hands to keep my neck in one place. One of the men kept reassuring me that I'd be all right, but I knew things weren't "all right." People only tell you that you'll be fine when things are very bad.
The Physical Recovery Was Terrible (But It Was Still The Easiest Part)
My accident, up to that point, was covered by a lot of outlets. It was a feel-good tale: Skydiver falls without parachute, survives. And sure, I'm thankful for that ... now. But that's not the whole story. When I think of my accident, I think of the recovery, which often feels like it has never ended.
The hospital was a montage: flashlights in the face, needles in the arm, pressure tests all over my body, straps to keep me down, a flurry of medical staff relaying messages, attending to my damaged body. They drugs helped ease my pain but added to my confusion. What just happened? Would I be OK? Was I truly dead?
That first night in hospital was the worst night of my life, lying in a shared room in pitch-black darkness, with nothing but beeping and snoring. I stared at the roof and cried from the pain. My eyes ached from all the crying. I truly wanted to die. My entire body was on fire, and my back was the worst. I'd broken my upper spine, fractured my lower spine, tore the ligaments in my neck, and received some cracked/bruised ribs. For four months I was in a neck and back brace and on a whole bunch of gnarly pain medication, like morphine and OxyContin. After that, I started an intense physiotherapy regimen, and it helped me learn to hold my posture so I could do simple tasks like driving and sleeping without damaging myself further.
You have no idea how long it took for me to be even be able to do a thumbs-up again.
Bill recovered fully, from what I hear. He was hurt even worse than me, but the guy went back to jumping as soon as he was able.
Merely Hearing The Word "Parachute" Froze Me With Fear
My first trigger came when I was still in the stretcher, hearing the nurse say "parachute incident." Then it hit me. I fell from the bloody sky! Tears flooded my eyes, and the nurses ran over with drugs. Despite years of therapy, PTSD still plays a massive part in my life. I am in a constant state of readiness, fearful that I could encounter danger at any moment. Triggers happen daily, often without warning, and can come in many forms with differing levels of severity. Getting startled is the most common trigger. People at work will knock on the door and I'll jump straight out of my chair. I even get a scare when I unexpectedly see my reflection. Heights are the big one. I can barely stand on a second-story balcony without shaking like jelly.
And then there's skydiving itself. Even hearing the word crippled me for years. I'd become powerless when I saw any hint of skydiving. It could be on TV or in a picture, it didn't matter what form. My flashbacks are so vivid that it's like I'm really reliving the incident. I feel the wind, I hear the parachute flailing, I see the Earth getting closer and closer.
Then the nightmares. I'd heard of night terrors before, of course, but I never knew it could become a full-blown disorder. Now, terror wrecked my ability to sleep. The nightmares were catastrophic. Visions of my skydive replayed over and over again. Eventually those nightmares shifted to other forms of death. I'd wake up hysterically screaming and yelling, with no idea where I was. Mum would have to rush to my aid and comfort me. The disorder riddled me with insomnia. I rarely slept.
The Accident Nearly Killed Me -- Depression And Drugs Almost Finished The Job
Before all of this, I was hitting my peak. I had just turned 22 and was ready to move out of my parents' place and into the city for the first time in my life -- a big deal for a country boy like me. I was a month into a new job. During the four months of physical recovery, my body healed, but my mind fell apart.
I slipped into depression almost straight away. I stayed in my room at my parent's place and hardly ever left. I shut myself off from family members, and would yell at my parents if they tried to comfort me. I refused to see my friends, and didn't post anything on social media. I was a recluse. I spent my days lying in bed, trying to numb the pain with intense medication. I felt hopeless and doomed. I didn't recognize myself.
To go from life of the party to the walking dead destroyed my soul. Living even one more second didn't seem worth it. I knew my family and friends would be devastated, but better they have me dead than go on dealing with my problems. Being alive meant being a burden. My plan was simple: Bomb a crazy amount of Endone and OxyContin and peacefully slip away.
I got up in the middle of the night and made my way to the bathroom. The pills were behind a mirrored medicine cabinet, and as I reached for them, I saw my reflection. I got a fright from seeing the unrecognizable man staring back at me. I was disheveled and gaunt. I wasn't Brad Guy at all. I was a stranger. That's when I gave myself a second chance. Why not? The old Brad was already dead.
I never did return to that job I'd started. My boss and the HR manager informed me that I had been made redundant. But I took refuge in my bedroom and sought some YouTube therapy. I spent all the redundancy cash on camera equipment, and I got filming straight away. It's not a job, but I haven't looked back.
I'm finally in a place where I can talk about my past. If you're struggling, it's not permanent. When you've fallen as far as you can go, you can still rise back up. At least a little bit.
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