One of the indelible memories of my life was when, at 16 years-old while watching a Fourth of July rodeo in Livingston, Montana, I witnessed a fatal skydiving accident.
So many of the details are clear that it remains a life lesson I come back to over and over again.
I remember being with my dad in the grandstands, following him along as he met many of his friends. He introduced me to a friend who was in a wheelchair after riding one-too-many bulls. I also remember learning the joke: “What is the most dangerous event at a rodeo? Answer: The barrel racing, because that’s when everyone gets hurt rushing to the bathroom.”
During a break in the action, the announcer directed everyone’s attention to a small plane flying overhead. Soon enough you could see three parachutes floating down, following their own paths to us in the rodeo grounds. Eventually, the first skydiver landed easily enough, and the second came down just after.
I remember the third one was stalling for time – they were too close together and I didn’t see how he was going to land in the parade grounds. Just as the final skydiver was level with the top seat of the bleachers, he made too sharp of a turn and his body swung up, level with the parachute holding him in the air. Without the weight of his body keeping tension in all the ropes that trap air in the fabric, keeping him afloat, the entire chute collapsed and he fell straight to the ground.
I remember that he bounced.
My dad was there as a volunteer firefighter. Our seats were close – I was looking forward to being right where they lit the fireworks after the rodeo. Dad climbed over the fence and helped provide first aid as the ambulance on-call rolled out and took the victim to the hospital.
It was later, in the fire truck, that we learned that the skydiver had died at the hospital and that he was also drunk. The newspaper account the next day quoted one of the other skydivers, saying the victim was a confident person who made a bad decision, executing a very radical turn too close to the ground. The victim was an experienced skydiver with more than 500 jumps.
The coroner’s report came out a week later, stating that the skydiver had an alcohol level of about 0.1. That’s enough to meet the legally impaired standard for driving under the influence of intoxicants. The newspaper said the radical turn is not normally attempted at fewer than 200 feet above the ground, and the skydiver didn’t leave enough time for his chute to fill with air before he crashed to the ground.
Of course, the lesson I took from that experience as a teenager was “do not drink while skydiving” and, for that matter, “Do not skydive.” But now, as I write about workplace safety and learn about all the varied ways people can die working in hazardous situations, there is a more basic lesson about constantly putting safety first in your profession.
People work in dangerous jobs every day – construction, roofing, climbing antennas, on oil rigs, and skydiving – and they deal with recognized but-very-real hazards. With experience, the work becomes easier, but the hazards always remain.
This skydiver had plenty of experience, but maybe with that experience came complacency. It’s the same type of bad decision that leads a roofer not to clip into his safety harness, or a mechanic not to ensure that machinery is locked and tagged out before attempting repairs, or a miner not to fit test their respirator one more time.
Obviously, don’t drink and skydive. But more importantly, don’t cut corners when it’s your safety and those of your employees and coworkers at stake.