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Looking Back : Sky Diver Leaps to Fame With Heroic Save

December 31, 1987|PAUL DEAN

When AT&T engineer Gregory Robertson reached out and touched someone . . . the life of an unconscious, falling, critically injured sky diver was saved.

It happened in April and close enough to Good Friday to be called an Easter miracle.

Novice sky diver Debbie Williams, 32, had collided with another free-falling jumper 9,000 feet above the Arizona desert. She was knocked cold, a lung punctured, liver lacerated, her skull and nine ribs fractured.

Robertson, an instructor monitoring the six-jumper formation, saw the peril and went after Williams in a vertical, head-down, 7,000-foot dive at 180 m.p.h.

He caught Williams, pulled her rip cord, then deployed his own parachute . . . 10 seconds before they would have hit the ground and died.

He Had to Try

Robertson, 35, of Phoenix, a 1,500-jump veteran, said at the time: "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."

So he acted and Williams lived.

And Robertson began learning to live with constant, worldwide adulation as the Genuine American Hero, a title bestowed by London tabloids, sky diving magazines and a personal letter from President Reagan.

He has received a dozen awards for bravery--including last week's notification that he is to be presented a Carnegie Hero Medal. His scrapbook is 12 inches thick, and the publicity continues--with recent stories and photographs in Reader's Digest and Life magazine, and a Christmas Eve television appearance with Geraldo Rivera. Robertson has received a job change that reflects AT&T's confidence in his coolness--to a position as safety engineer.

For all of this, Robertson said, he remains "about normal . . . the same hat still fits." Yet if there has been change as a result of his feat, he believes, it could be in the public's view of sky diving.

Sport 'Very Survivable'

"There seem to be more intelligent questions asked concerning the sport, compared to dumb comments in the past," he said. "People are realizing that sky diving is very survivable . . . and your chances certainly are better than driving home on New Year's Eve."

Robertson, of Phoenix, has remained in touch with Williams, of Post, Tex. Rescuer and rescued met in October at Coolidge Municipal Airport, the scene of their save.

And, just for the heck of such a celebration at Halloween, they climbed into an airplane and jumped a two-way from almost two miles up.

It was Williams' first jump since the accident.

She has announced no plans to resume the hobby.

"Debbie and her fiance bought a 37-foot sailboat and plan on sailing around the world," Robertson said. "She just wanted to jump once more with me, to see how it was . . . in case she decides to jump while they're traveling."

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