Skydiving Quadriplegic's Death Raises Questions of Safety for Disabled Thrill Seekers

PHOTO: Zack Fogel, a 27-year-old quadriplegic, died Saturday after his parachute failed to open.
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The death of 27-year-old Zack Fogle, a quadriplegic with a passion for skydiving, has sparked a debate over safety standards for disabled thrill seekers.

Fogle, who was partially paralyzed from the neck down, died skydiving at the 44th annual Lost Prairie Boogie in northwest Montana on Saturday after his custom-built parachute failed to open. According to video footage and statements from other skydivers, Fogle was on his back for much of the 1,200-foot free fall, leading investigators to conclude that his disability prevented him from righting his position and manually deploying his chute.

"It's a difficult maneuver for anyone to get rolled over," said Flathead County Undersheriff Jordan White. "Your arms and legs act like wind vanes that keep you in the position you're in."

Fogle may have been relying on a fail-safe mechanism designed to automatically release an emergency chute in the unlikely event manual deployment didn't work. But investigators said the mechanism appeared not to have been activated prior to his jump.

In the five years since his certification, Fogle had jumped 125 times without incident. But his death raised questions of whether he should have been allowed to skydive in the first place.

"As soon as something's found to be dangerous or negative in any way, there's a fight to regulate it so people don't get hurt doing it," said White. "Unfortunately, that violates the whole fabric of our culture, of exploring our world and following our dreams."

Skydiving was a dream-come-true for Fogle, whose world was turned upside-down 10 years ago when a car crash claimed much of his strength and mobility. Like many people living with spinal cord injuries, Fogle embraced the opportunity to challenge himself despite his disabilities.

Victor Calise, a Paralympic athlete who works with the Wheelchair Sports Federation, said overcoming challenges is a crucial part of the recovery process.

"It just builds that confidence up, that confidence you may have lost with your injury," said Calise, who became paralyzed from the chest down in a mountain biking accident. "It makes you feel whole again."

Calise is no stranger to the safety debate. While training for the Paralympic sled hockey, he was turned away from countless rinks by managers who claimed his disability was a liability.

"Just because a person's disabled, should they not have the opportunity to challenge themselves? Absolutely they should be able to," Calise said.

Thanks to specialized equipment, people with disabilities can skydive, scuba dive, ski and play a host of wheelchair and sled sports.

"But we need to realize that with all risky activities there is always the possibility of being significantly injured or killed whether one is disabled or not," said Dr. Steve Williams, director of the New England Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center at Boston Medical Center.

Indeed, skydiving is a risky hobby for anyone. Garl "Mike" Newby, 57, died at last year's Lost Prairie Boogie after his parachute became entangled with a fellow skydiver's.

Should People With Disabilities Face Different Safety Standards?

Safety regulations for disabled thrill seekers made headlines in July when U.S. Army Sgt. James Hackemer, an Iraq War veteran and double amputee, died after being ejected from the "Ride of Steel" rollercoaster at Darien Lake Theme Park in upstate New York. Despite park rules that riders "must have upper body control, two legs and the complete use of at least one hand" and that "no artificial limbs may be worn," Hackemer reportedly boarded the ride unchallenged by park employees. His family recently filed a wrongful death suit against the park.

Fogle's fall, on the other hand, has been ruled an accident -- an unfortunate series of events stemming from a risk he happily accepted.

"Live to the point of tears," is listed as one of Fogle's favorite quotes on Facebook. The other: "Remember, Zack, if you can't be safe, be spectacular."

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