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Skydiver on a Collision Course With Heroism in the Arizona Sky : 'She Would Have Died and I Just Could Not Let That Happen'

May 10, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — In a life where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for fear or regrets, only decision. --A skydiving homily taken

from "Don Juan"

Even master skydivers--those indifferent to the daring and fatalities of their sport--have paused to admire one colleague's decision to deny the hunter.

The rescue: a vertical, head-down dive in pursuit of an unconscious novice who had collided with another freefalling skydiver--then opening the woman's parachute less than 10 seconds before she would have hit the ground.

Gritty, Cocksure

The rescuer: Gregory Robertson, a gritty, cocksure, 35-year-old electrical engineer for AT&T whose mid-air save on April 18 has already earned his company's Theodore E. Vail Award (worth $10,000) for exemplary public service. Now the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission is reviewing the incident.

The rescued: Debbie Williams, 31, a fifth-grade teacher from Post, Tex., now at Humana Hospital, Abilene, Tex. She was flown there Monday from Scottsdale Memorial Hospital near here. She remains in fair condition. But Williams has her life.

Robertson's life, on the other hand, is barely his own.

There's an agent-entrepreneur in Reno orchestrating his interviews and protecting his rights in case a movie is offered. There has been a photo reenactment for the tabloids and two pages of coverage by the London Daily Mirror. Next month's issue of Parachutist, the magazine of the U.S. Parachute Assn., will have Robertson on its cover as: "An American Hero."

Robertson doesn't see himself quite so loftily.

What he did, he agrees, was an exercise in instinctive decision making and precise timing rooted in the experience and training of his 1,500-jump career. He and Williams were lucky, he said, that there were seconds and altitude to spare and that he knew what could be done and that he has a facility for functioning easily under stress.

But would Robertson have knowingly given his life to save Williams? No.

"I would not have put myself in the ground for her," he said. He was back at the desert stage of the drama, Skydive Arizona, a sport parachute center at Coolidge Municipal Airport southeast of here. It had been a day of more interviews, more tributes, more photographs. "Yeah . . . the point would have come, where, exactly, I don't know, but there would have been a point where I would have just fired my own reserve to save myself.

"But I had the time. I had a few seconds to spare there and it worked. When I started, no, I did not know if it would work. But I had to try. She was going in clean. She would have died and I just could not let that happen. I could not live with myself for just letting someone die and not trying."

But he did try. He did not let Williams die.

An 'Easter Miracle'

So a friend is calling the rescue an Easter miracle. In European newspapers, a headline superlative for Robertson has become repetitious: Superman. Jumpers are telephoning daily asking him to detail the full, firsthand choreography of the rescue. In case, they say, the opportunity might one day be theirs.

Last week, as Robertson bundled his canopy after his third jump of the morning, an airline captain came to call. Wayne Roberts trains Lufthansa pilots under a teaching contract with a PSA subsidiary. He had an envelope for Robertson.

"I just passed the hat around the guys, just a buck apiece so Robertson can have one on us," Roberts explained. "Most of us (instructors) were in the military and we know that this (rescue) is the kind of thing you get the Medal of Honor for.

"He was on the spot and said: 'I can do this thing.' And he did it. That's going downtown on the first day. And there's some poetry here about not counting the cost."

Before things went wrong, everything went inexplicably, fatefully right.

There had been ignition problems with the antique DC-4 transport that was to carry 120 skydivers aloft for a series of formation drops. But to compensate for the delay, the pilot gave the jumpers another 1,000 feet of altitude.

Any of a dozen experts among the 420 divers at this Easter meet could have flown as load organizer. But Gregory Robertson, a man whose idea of the perfect 35th birthday party was to make 35 jumps in seven hours, the U.S. Parachute Assn.'s safety and training administrator for the drop zone, decided to take the flight.

Debbie Williams might have been just another skydiver of unknown skills and no particular need for supervision. But earlier, Robertson had seen Williams having trouble repacking her chute, stopped to assist, discovered she was a novice with only 50 jumps and had made a mental note to keep an eye on her.

And so he tucked Williams and her six-jumper group in the front of the DC-4. That way they would exit close to last and behind experts doing 12- and 20-way formation jumps.

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