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.

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."

Psychologist: 'There May Not Be a Universal Response'

Sandra Levy Ceren, a clinical psychologist in Del Mar, California, who has worked with victims of trauma, said she is not surprised the by varied reactions reported by people who believe they were falling to their deaths.

"I think that there may not be a universal response," she said. "I think it may be the kind of person someone is, the kind of life experiences they may have [that] may have them react in different ways.

"Some people may freeze and not be able to think," she said. "Some people may use their creativity and their ability to be assertive and strong to save themselves."

Or to save others.

As time before impact grew short, Hartsock maneuvered his body so he would hit the ground first. He bore the brunt of the fall, ended up paralyzed and now needs round-the-clock medical care.

"I know how to fall. I know how to take an impact on the ground. I had to protect her," he said. "The only bones I broke, unfortunately, were in my neck. It was a pretty good landing, actually. ... Unfortunately, the bones I broke in my neck left me a quadriplegic."

Dygert, who suffered organ damage and also broke vertebrae in her neck, as well as some ribs and her sternum, vows never to skydive again. But she is telling the story of Hartsock's heroism in hopes of raising money to pay for his care.

"He didn't have to take that fall for me," Dygert said. "I'm hoping that something good comes out of this for David because he has nobody to help him without his mom," Viki, who rarely is able to leave his side.

Click here for more of Hartsock's story and to find out how to donate money for his care.

Shayna Richardson, then 21, also spun out of control and survived on a skydive, on Oct. 9, 2005 in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

Richardson thought she was jumping solo as her fiance and skydive instructor, Rick West, jumped separately with a video camera rolling. Later, she discovered at the hospital that she wasn't exactly alone. She was three weeks pregnant.

West, who jumped after her, yelled instructions as she spun downward at 50 mph. But she was unable to right herself and crashed face-down into a parking lot.

"I let go of my steering toggles, and I just asked God to take away the pain of the impact," she told ABC News' "Good Morning America" in December 2005, two months after her ill-fated jump. "I told him I was ready to go home. I just didn't want to feel that pain."

A church group on a lunch outing had already reached her side and called 911 by the time he got to her side, West said.

"She was saying to me, 'Is that you?' ... and, 'I'm alive?'" West told "I said, 'Yeah, you're alive and you're going to be OK.' ... I was just thinking the whole time: 'This girl is going to die.'"

She lived, married West and now goes by the name Shayna West. They have two children, including four-year-old Tanner, the boy with whom she was pregnant on her skydive.

"Tanner was my guardian angel that day. I just know it. I feel it," she told "Good Morning America" in March 2007. "He was my reason to fight. ... I had things left to do on this Earth. I still don't know for sure what those things are. One of them, for sure, is my baby."

But the Wests have endured considerable pain from their accident -- facing financial hardship as Shayna West has undergone reconstructive surgeries on her face and recovery from a broken pelvis and other injuries.

Still, like other survivors, they seem to consider themselves lucky.

"There is no logical explanation of why I lived," Shayna West said in 2005. "It simply comes down to God had his hand in that."

Long Fall Survival: 'Amazing Combination of Luck' and Favorable Physics

People who experience long falls often cite a sense of divine intervention though, as with all of the common threads, there are exceptions.

Jim Hamilton, who runs The Free Fall Research Page, is skeptical of divine intervention theories because many of the falls lead to extreme injuries or the deaths of others -- as with Alcides Moreno, the New York window washer who survived a 43-story fall in December 2007 by clinging to a scaffold while his brother died in the same fall.

Expert observers say it usually takes a scaffold, a tree, a deflated balloon, a partially open parachute or some other object to cushion a fall or create enough drag so it's possible a person can survive -- that, plus "some amazing combination of luck," Hamilton said.

"It's just extremely rare where somebody has just fallen with nothing out and survived that impact because they're likely falling at 120 mph," said Ed Scott, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association, referring to a typical terminal velocity of a free-falling person. "The scenario of falling without anything above you and surviving that fall, that's almost unheard of."

However, there are stories that come close.

Hamilton ranks falls on a 1-to-100 scale based upon distance fallen and other factors. At the top of his scale, with a score of 96, is Vesna Vulovic, a Yugoslavian stewardess said to have survived a 33,000-foot fall in plane wreckage in Czechoslovakia in 1972 -- though the account recently was challenged.

Also near the top of Hamilton's all-time list is the March 1944 case of Nicholas Stephen Alkemade, a British World War II airman forced to bail out of a burning plane at 18,000 feet over Germany, unable to reach his parachute.

"I had no sensation of falling. It was more like being at rest on an airy cloud," he wrote in Reader's Digest in 1958. "If this was dying it was nothing to be afraid of. I only regretted that I should go without saying goodbye to my friends. I would never again see Pearl, my sweetheart back home in Loughborough. And I'd been due to go on leave the following Saturday. Then -- nothing. I must have blacked out."

Alkemade woke up hours later in snow and underbrush looking up at interlaced fir trees. He felt pain in his back but could move his legs. He thanked God. He reached into his pocket for a cigarette and lit up.

Soon, he was dragged away by Nazis. His captors doubted his story until confirming details using physical evidence from the wrecked plane, where Alkemade's unused parachute was found.

More recently, as with Shayna West, a large part of the "wow" factor in these survival falls is that they are captured on video -- as happened in three falls by British men.

Briton Michael Holmes even got to deliver what he thought was his final goodbye via a helmet camera when he fell approximately 12,000 feet in December 2006 over Lake Taupo, New Zealand at age 25. About 5 seconds from impact, after struggling almost a minute to regain control of his parachute, he can be seen waving and heard saying goodbye.

"I tried to think of the right thing to say for the camera," he told Australia's Sunday Mail in February 2007. "But I looked at the ground again and just blurted out, 'Oh s***, I'm dead. Bye.'"

Holmes, who said he had done 7,000 jumps, told the Sunday Mail that he was angry about the failure of his emergency efforts, and in his final moments "didn't have time to think about anything" like his loved ones or his life experiences.

"I was frightened, but not overwhelmingly so," he said in subsequent comments published by New Scientist magazine in October 2007. "I even remember accepting that I was going to die, and from then on everything seemed peaceful. I hit the ground at about 35 meters per second [almost 80 mph], so I really should have died. I survived because some blackberry bushes cushioned my fall."

He suffered a broken ankle and punctured lung, but said he never considered giving up skydiving.

Paul Lewis: 'It's All Over'

Fellow Brit Paul Lewis, 40, a skydive cameraman, got video of his Aug. 14, 2009 fall on a 10,000-foot skydive over Shropshire, England. He told the media he became fearful and "resigned to dying" after struggling in vain with his snarled parachute.

"I didn't shout out goodbye mum or dad, or anything like that," he told the British newspaper News of the World, which ran video of his fall soon after it happened. "I just looked at the ground and quite calmly said, 'It's all over.' ... And I shut my eyes -- and blacked out."

An airplane hangar roof broke his fall and he suffered no broken bones, according to accounts.

Unlike many others whose recent air sport outings went wrong, Lewis declared himself done with skydiving.

"I'll never need that much luck again," the skydive cameraman told the paper. "I'm selling my parachute equipment and my camera gear."

Far more who have fallen seem unready to swear off their hobbies entirely.

James Boole of Britain was gliding off an Italian mountain in a "wing suit" in late March, according to Britain's Sun newspaper, less than a year after jumped out of a helicopter in Russia's Kamchatka region last year.

But unlike Russia in April 2009, he landed safely.

Boole, 31 at the time of his accident, was filming fellow jumpers on a 6,000-foot leap when he did not get a signal to deploy his parachute in time.

"I did not panic or freak out," the Guardian newspaper quoted him saying in May 2009. "In those two seconds, I just thought of my wife and young baby and the sadness of not seeing them again plus the loneliness of my death. ... There was no Hollywood moment of my life flashing in front of me as I fell. There was no glory that jumpers sometimes fantasize about if they are facing death."

Boole hit a snowdrift at approximately 90 mph, according to the Guardian. He had broken his back, at least one rib and some teeth, and also badly injured his lung, according to reports.

"For the first 48 hours after the accident I thought maybe I am dead and this is some kind of afterlife limbo, or some other reality," the Independent newspaper quoted him saying.

Though he did not quit jumping, he told reporters he would give up filming as he made his jumps.

Other survivors also see life a little differently since their falls.

Said Walz: "I smile more, laugh more and thank God every day for saving my life and being able to enjoy such a beautiful place we are at for such a short time."

Though Rick West was the observer on his future wife's fall, he said it's changed him, too: "It makes me grateful for life, for what I do have. I have two beautiful children, a beautiful life, a great job [in the military]. ... I'm glad to have another day."

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