They Fell From the Skies and Lived to Tell the Tale

Balloonist, skydivers on what it's like to stare death in the eye ... and live.

ByABC News
May 14, 2010, 1:40 PM

May 17, 2010 — -- Chuck Walz fought back fear as he struggled to stabilize his damaged hot air balloon. He believed he'd regained stability and managed to ease it down from about 13,600 to 10,000 feet. Then the balloon came completely apart.

Falling at nearly 100 mph in the balloon's basket, Walz radioed a friend on the ground with a final message: Tell his wife and son he loved them. He felt his fear subside, prayed, retreated to the corner of his basket and waited to die.

Dozens of Americans die every year in parachuting accidents, according to the website And since 2005, according to a search of National Transportation Safety Board records, there have been 10 fatalities in eight balloon accidents in the United States.

But Walz isn't one of them -- even though he fell nearly two miles from the sky. He was 52 at the time, taking part in the Great Southeast Balloon Fest in Anderson, South Carolina, on Aug. 31, 2008.

Walz, from Munith, Michigan, is among the small group of people around the world who have fallen from mountains, skyscrapers or even greater heights, spent a minute or more facing almost-certain death ... and lived to tell the tale.

Such cases seem rare. Perhaps a couple receive media attention each year and many of those are detailed on a website called The Free Fall Research Page.

The website lists two such cases already this year -- a father and daughter who fell 13 stories in an apartment building during the Chilean earthquake on Feb. 27; and Lareece Butler, 26, of South Africa, who fell approximately 3,000 feet in a March 6 skydiving accident.

"I tried opening the emergency chute, but it did not open," she The Herald of South Africa. "I said, 'God save me, please. I have a son,' and after that I do not remember anything. I remember waking up" in the hospital.

On the other hand, Walz told in a series of e-mails, "I remember everything that happened to me from the very beginning of my experience that beautiful Sunday morning."

The details of Walz's experience match elements reported by others who have fallen great distances -- including frenzied efforts to regain control, feelings of fear, resignation and reflection, and sometimes a goodbye message to loved ones.

"I called my buddy on the ground via two-way radio (who was in Anderson helping out) and told him that I was in trouble and I figured I could not get out of this one. I then paused for a moment or two, looked around," Walz wrote via e-mail. "Then called him back and told him to tell my wife and son that I will miss them and that I loved them. I said I love all you guys, unkeyed the mike, stood in the corner of the basket, said a prayer or two, then relaxed because I was pretty sure the end was near."

During the last moments of his fall, he could hear sirens of rescue workers rushing in below. He worried he might hit a house, power lines, a road, a parking lot -- in any event, something hard or deadly. Yet he felt his fear subsiding.

"I relaxed," he said, "because I knew I had no control of what was about to happen to me and it would not do any good to fight it."

As it turned out, Walz's fall was broken by a small tree, which snagged his balloon and pitched him out of his basket, leaving him hospitalized with a broken pelvis and other injuries.

"What went through my mind [was,] 'I hope this doesn't hurt' [and] 'What will death be like?'" Walz said. "I had absolutely NO control of what I was going to smash into. I had to hit that single tree in just the perfect spot to save my life. What are the odds?? To put it in words that someone told me, 'God's angels guided me to the tree. He was there under the tree with his hands open to catch me.'"

Like Walz, Shirley Dygert, 54, a first-time skydiver, thought of her family as she believed she was falling to her death. But her instructor, David Hartsock, 44, who was strapped to her back, had an entirely different series of thoughts going through his head -- how to save both of their lives.

Dygert believes that, in the end, Hartsock sacrificed himself to save her as they spun out of control on that 13,000-foot tandem jump outside Houston on Aug. 1, 2009.

"After we went around three times, we were sort of picking up speed and I was getting dizzy [and] I said, 'I don't know if I could take any more of this, Dave,' and he said, 'I'll be honest with you: We're in trouble,'" Dygert told "I thought, 'This is how I'm going to die.' And then I thought I would see my mom. She had already passed. And then, when I thought about my mom I thought about my kids on the ground seeing this. I said, 'Oh God, I don't want my kids to see this.' And then I started praying."

Hartsock, who'd been on more than 800 jumps, said he worked his way through a mental checklist of emergency procedures, but none did the trick.

"The last thing you're going to do is panic," he said. "You panic, you lose your skill. ... Nobody knows how they'll react."