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Skydivers Unbowed by Recent Deaths

Risk: Aficionados defend hobby, downplay danger despite October mishaps at Chicago-area club.

January 13, 2002|BRANDON LOOMIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

OTTAWA, Ill. — One day in October, six members of a skydiving team were gliding toward a normal landing on a typical practice jump when they heard the yell.

Above them, two members of the team had become entangled. Their canopies collapsed and the pair plunged to the ground with no time to trip their backup parachutes.

Less than a week later, witnesses watched helplessly as another veteran skydiver spun out of control, deploying his backup chute too late to soften the fatal fall.

It was the fourth death of 2001--the 11th since 1993--at the Skydive Chicago club, located amid farm fields 70 miles southwest of the city. That accident rate prompted an inquiry from the sport's sanctioning body, the U. S. Parachute Assn., and questions from LaSalle County officials who would like to see more regulation.

But skydiving veterans say what's happened at Skydive Chicago amounts to bad luck--a reminder of the risks they're willing to take doing what they love.

"It's human flight. It's the dream you want to fulfill as a kid," said Donovan Bartlett, 29, an instructor at Skydive Chicago. "It's about the most freeing experience you can have."

Bartlett was engaged to 27-year-old Deborah Luhmann of Ottawa, who died along with 44-year-old Steven Smith of Ohio, Ill., when they became tangled in midair during the Oct. 6 team practice.

A sheriff's detective testified at a coroner's inquest that witnesses could only see one skydiver because Smith and Luhmann were so intertwined.

No one is sure exactly what happened. The victims were careful divers, according to their friends, and toxicology tests showed that they were sober. The deaths were ruled accidental.

"It's no different than [a driver] making a decision at an intersection and slamming into her," Peggy Denz, Luhmann's mother, said after the inquest. "Somebody made a decision and she's gone."

Denz said that her whole family likes to go skydiving and that the sport isn't to blame. Bartlett was jumping again a week after the deaths.

But even as he was getting back into the air Oct. 14, there was another tragedy.

Witnesses said 38-year-old Bruce Greig, a club regular, inexplicably began spiraling out of control during his jump. He had plenty of time while spinning to ditch the parachute and deploy his backup, but didn't until it was too late, according to interviews detailed at the coroner's inquest.

Coroner Jody Bernard said a toxicology test found the drug Ecstasy in Greig's system, although there is no standard for determining at what level it could be an impairment. Traces of marijuana and cocaine were also found, she said, but at levels indicating that he was not impaired by them during the accident. His death was ruled accidental.

Skydive Chicago owner Roger Nelson declined repeated requests for an interview with the Associated Press.

But on Oct. 15, the club's Web site carried the following note on Greig's death, ostensibly written by Nelson: "Tragedy struck all of us again as Bruce Greig--Muskrat--died after a low cut-away. . . . What is known is that Bruce was observed spinning for quite awhile and [discarded his primary parachute] between 150 and 250 feet. Our minds are at a loss for words as our hearts have yet to heal."

There are roughly 30 skydiving deaths a year in this country, according to the U. S. Parachute Assn. Considering Americans make more than 3 million jumps a year, the risk of death is about 1 in 110,000.

By that standard, Skydive Chicago's four deaths make for a bad year: The coroner reports that there are about 75,000 jumps a year with the club, one of the largest in the nation.

The parachute association has some oversight--it inquires about deaths and can withdraw its sanction. Gary Peek, the group's central region director, talked to Nelson after the last death. The skydivers were experienced--not newcomers who put themselves entirely in Nelson's hands. Peek concluded that there was nothing amiss at the club.

"We continue to remind ourselves that it's a potentially dangerous sport, but we also remind ourselves that there are much gorier things on the highway," Peek said. "There's lots of ways to die."

But with more people falling from the sky than falling prey to murderers in rural LaSalle County, some authorities are frustrated at what they consider a lack of oversight.

"It's not a very regulated sport," said LaSalle County State's Atty. Joe Hettel, who examined the cases and concluded that there was nothing he could do. "If this is going to be something that people make money on, I think the government should be more involved in safety."

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates skydiving. It designates drop zones, inspects planes and requires that an FAA-licensed rigger pack the reserve parachute. But the agency's responsibility appears to end there.

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