It wasn't supposed to happen to Rob Harris. Not this way.
Not to this expert sky diver who logged thousands of jumps, who was a world-champion sky surfer, who had parlayed that envelope-pushing sport into numerous commercials, who was scrupulous about safety.
Harris wasn't supposed to die three days before his 29th birthday. It was a by-the-books jump for a soft-drink commercial, a maneuver he had done a number of times. A walk in the park.
It wasn't supposed to end with him crashing into a snowy Canadian field after he apparently had trouble opening his parachutes. His sky-surfing partner, Joe Jennings, shakes his head when he pictures his friend lying there.
"He just looked like he was sleeping. Like I could wake him up."
Harris' death leaves his family, friends and the skydiving community in shock. About 1,500 people packed American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach last month for his funeral, many of them from his other life as a successful nightclub deejay.
"When Rob would deejay a club it would be magical," said Brad X, Harris' former roommate and partner in the Artist Groove Network, a promotions company. "He just had a knack for taking people to new heights when he spun."
Harris and Jennings met at a skydiving site in Taft, Calif., and soon decided to pair up as a sky-surfing team. The sport entails two people jumping from a plane; one has a small custom board strapped to his feet and does aerial tricks while the other films the spins and flips with a helmet-mounted camera.
In addition to becoming world sky-surfing champions two years in a row, they also took home first place honors in last year's ESPN Extreme Games competition.
It was during the filming of a Pepsi Max (known here as Mountain Dew) commercial in British Columbia that the accident occurred. Jennings recalled that it was a fairly routine stunt that they had practiced about 10 times. Neither had apprehensions, even though Harris was wearing a tuxedo (for a James Bond send-up ) instead of his usual skydiving gear. "But Rob does [things like that] on a regular basis," he said.
Jennings explained that Harris had three parachutes; after opening the first chute, or canopy, to do his stunt, he was to cut it away, leaving a main and a reserve. He believes Harris grabbed the wrong handle and released his main parachute instead of the canopy. But he had been trained to deal with that situation and knew to cut the canopy and main chutes and then land with the reserve.
But it seemed to Jennings that Harris was struggling with something as he fell away. He saw the reserve parachute begin to open up, but the risers--the lines tethering the chute to Harris--appeared to impede its inflation.
After recalling the horrific episode, Jennings added: "It was just so incredible that this person, with whom my entire experience for three years was all movement--and here he wasn't moving anymore."
Jennings still wants to "fly good camera," as he called it, but almost at the moment Harris died, he knew he'd never compete again.
"To team up with somebody and be as connected as I was with Rob is just . . . " he shook his head. "No."
Some of Harris' ashes have been sent around the world to be scattered by skydiving peers. More commemorative jumps are planned.
But the memorials weren't just Jennings' ideas--some Harris had already requested.
"This may sound a little off the wall," he said, "but I think in a lot of ways he was almost prepared. . . . He said, [when he died] he wanted a memorial jump done with friends of his. And he wanted some of his ashes sprinkled on the place where he impacted, and kind of almost a Native American ceremony to take place right there at the spot."
But Jennings doesn't interpret this as a preoccupation with or premonition of Harris' death, and he said Harris decried the notion that sky surfing was for crazy daredevils with a death wish. (The United States Parachute Assn. reports that in 1995 there were 26 deaths--about one death per 84,000 jumps. In 1994 there were 30 deaths in 2.7 million jumps.)
"Rob was very, very meticulous about doing things safely. I think that he knew with all the cutting-edge work that he was doing the possibility [of accidents] existed." Harris also base jumped, leaping from a fixed point such as a cliff with a parachute.
Harris' parents, Larry and Bea Harris, although always supportive of their son, were never too thrilled about his enthusiasm for jumping out of planes.
"I always told him, 'Why don't you do something simple like wrestle alligators?' " Larry said.
The two sat in the living room of their spacious Manhattan Beach home with son Jim, 33, a drummer. A slight unease and quietness quickly faded when they began talking about Rob.
"Usually when he would tell us [what he was doing], he had already done it," Bea said. It was that way with motorbike racing, skydiving and base jumping. Keeping his adventures secret was probably meant to spare them from worry.
"But," Larry added, "his preparation for anything was unbelievable."