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A Near-Fatal Skyjump Isn't Enough to Keep Diver From Taking the Plunge Again

May 10, 1987|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

It was certainly the last place Guy Fitzwater had expected to run into anyone.

Fitzwater was enjoying solitude in the place he loves most, high above the Earth, doing the thing he most enjoys, hurtling through the air at 120 miles per hour.

No, Guy Fitzwater is not the new Superman. He's a 51-year-old Van Nuys painting contractor who took up skydiving 18 months ago.

On the Saturday before last Easter weekend, he was making his first jump outside of Southern California, bailing out at 13,500 feet just southeast of Phoenix as part of something called the Easter Skydive Boogie, a gathering of 420 divers.

On this particular jump, Fitzwater was to be one of seven skydivers who planned to meet on the way down and hook hands, forming a human star.

Fitzwater was the first one out of the plane. At about 9,000 feet, his mind on catching the several other divers who had dropped below him, Fitzwater suddenly felt someone, or something, run into him.

Run into him? At 9,000 feet?

He had been hit on his blind side, the pain shooting from his left shoulder all the way down to his left calf.

"It was such an impact," he says, "it was like a cannonball going through me. I thought for sure that I had broken something."

Fitzwater rolled over on his back--keep in mind now, he's still plummeting through the air at about 120 miles per hour--and saw another skydiver drifting off to his left. He later learned it was Debbie Williams, a 31-year-old Texas elementary school teacher who had left the plane after Fitzwater and had inadvertently collided with him, her head hitting first his backpack and then his rib cage on the left side.

As Williams dropped out of view, Fitzwater was suddenly aware of another passer-by in what seemingly had become a crowded thoroughfare of sky. This time, it was Gregory Robertson, the 35-year-old organizer of this particular exercise and a veteran of more than 1,500 jumps.

In contrast, Williams was making just her 51st jump, Fitzwater his 94th.

Robertson looked at Fitzwater, saw he was conscious and had regained his stability, then looked down at Williams and saw her falling out of the sky on her back, unconscious, her face covered with blood.

In a split second, Robertson made up his mind. He would try to catch up to her, this human rag doll traveling at about 140 miles per hour. To do so, he threw himself into a head-first dive, getting his body up to a speed of around 180 miles per hour.

In an instant, Robertson was gone, leaving Fitzwater suddenly alone, a solitary speck in a no-longer crowded sky, only the sound of the rushing wind accompanying him as he fell.

"I was hurt real bad," he says. "I knew that. I didn't know how bad.

"I didn't want to open my chute at 9,000 feet because there was no telling where I'd land. I could have drifted into Mexico. I wanted to get out of there at 3,500 feet, meaning I wouldn't open my chute until then. That way, I could be sure I'd land in the drop zone where help was waiting. The problem was, I didn't know if I could stay conscious that long. I kept passing in and out of consciousness."

What in the world had made a middle-age grandfather drift into a crazy spot like this in the first place?

Guy Fitzwater had always wanted to jump out of planes--at least for the last 30 years, since his days in the Missouri National Guard when a juvenile offense had kept him from joining the guard's paratroopers.

He had engaged in a lot of other sports since--archery, boxing, soccer, dirt biking--but the lure of the skies wouldn't abate.

Finally, just before his 50th birthday, Fitzwater got his chance. His son, Steven, a student at San Diego State, had, at Guy's insistence, set up an outing to a skydiving site in Chula Vista. Along with Guy, there were to be five or six college students on the expedition.

"I had no idea what it would be like," the senior Fitzwater says, "but I wanted to try."

It cost $125 that first time for a day of instruction and one jump.

But nothing, says Fitzwater, prepares you for the instant when you separate yourself from the plane and, you think at the time, from sanity. The first step's a dilly.

"It was exciting, frightening," Fitzwater says. "I was full of fear."

Beginners bail out at 3,500 feet, but remain temporarily attached to the plane via an umbilical cord called a static line. After three seconds, the chute opens automatically and the line cuts loose.

There is nothing the novice need think about or do. Which is just as well.

"The first time, I don't think you realize what you are doing," Fitzwater says. "It's only when you see your chute open that you start thinking. I went through a brain shutdown when I first went out of the plane. There was no thought in my mind. I had gone through a brain overload.

"But if you follow what the instructors say, it's perfectly safe. People think you just go up in an airplane, jump out and pull the rip cord. It's nothing like that."

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