Skydiving fatalities and the statistics of their frequency

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EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU-TV) — 74-year-old Ed Harney of Paramus died from a skydiving accident. Thomas Yanac, the Monroe County Coroner, tells Eyewitness News Harney died of multiple traumatic injuries from the fall.

Albert Berchtold is the executive director of the United States Parachute Association. He says it’s a rare occurrence nationally.

“In 2020 there were 11 fatalities – fatal skydiving accidents that occurred, out of 2.8 million skydives that happened here in the United States,” Berchtold said.

The United States Parachute Association, or USPA, is a voluntary non-profit organization dedicated to furthering skydiving safety related initiatives and promoting the sport of skydiving. Berchtold tells Eyewitness News they look into every skydiving accident, fatal or nonfatal, that occurs. He says skydiving accidents are actually more common with experienced divers.

“It is user error, or a mistake, on part of the experienced jumper. A mistake they make whether it be emergency procedures, or handling of the parachute or various other things that can occur,” Berchtold said.

Berchtold says it’s rare for a parachute to not deploy. But that’s just what happened to Richard Purcell, a former paratrooper of the Army. He tells Eyewitness News being a paratrooper is different than being a commercial sky diver.

“A paratrooper is a static line jumper, okay static line means they are connected to the aircraft, upon exiting the aircraft the shoot opens,” Purcell said.

Purcell’s accident happened 20 years ago.

“Early 2001, I was in an accident where I don’t remember much from the aftermath for obvious reasons. All I can remember the day of is my primary parachute didn’t open,” Purcell said.

Purcell says his reserve parachute also didn’t open. When he was found, he was declared dead. But he survived with no broken bones, just ripped ligaments and other injuries that took rehabilitation. He says it’s rare to survive a fall like that. When he finally was able to comprehend what had happened to him, he was shocked as he has jumped hundreds of times.

“I couldn’t believe it would happen to me, you know I was very particular about the things I did,” Purcell said.

Purcell says being particular, and double checking everything is the key to preventing accidents like his.

“Checking twice is not enough. You keep checking. To the moment you run out that aircraft, you’re always checking. Your buddy is checking you. So you have to make sure that it’s… it becomes safer with more checks,” Purcell said.

Berchtold gives advice for newer jumpers.

“We usually recommend that they do a little bit of homework, or do a little bit of education, as with any activity that they’re going to do partake in,” Berchtold.

Purcell’s accident did not destroy his love for jumping out of a plane with a parachute.

“The process of coming back to jump, it was more a self goal thing. Once I got past the healing. Then I said I had to prove to myself there was, and maybe it’s a manly thing, but there was no, I wanted to not be afraid. I wanted to overcome whatever it was in front of me,” Purcell said.

Purcell jumped 50 more times after his accident. He retired from the service in 2015.

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