3. A Fall from the Sky

3. A Fall from the Sky

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After

A Fall from the Sky

Attitudes are contagious. Are yours worth catching?

~Dennis and Wendy Mannering

One day, some years ago, my friend Beverley and I decided that we’d each like to experience the thrill of a tandem skydive — when a novice leaps out of an airplane without a parachute while attached to an experienced jumpmaster who is wearing two, just in case. The jumpmaster keeps everything safe and stable so that even novices — in this case Beverley and I — can experience thirty seconds or more of weightless free fall.

We had heard about Kevin McIlwee’s skydiving school — named after his war heroes, the Flying Tigers — and about his excellent reputation. Yes, even on a small island called Jersey, fourteen miles off the north coast of France, one can leap out of airplanes. As it happened, Kevin was presenting an introductory skydiving seminar at a local hotel, and so we eagerly attended. He was most impressive — a professional skydiver for twenty years who had completed over four thousand jumps, and the first British qualified tandem instructor.

During that first meeting, Kevin won our confidence, so Beverley and I signed up for our first tandem skydives. As time passed, Kevin won more than Beverley’s confidence; he won her heart.

In the spring of 2001, Kevin and Beverley married. And now Mr. and Mrs. McIlwee prepared for their honeymoon. They packed their suitcases — and of course their skydiving rigs — and they set out on their journey. Kevin piloted their light aircraft from Jersey to the parachute center in Vannes, on the south coast of Brittany in France.

By this time, Kevin and Beverley had completed over fifty tandem skydives together and were looking forward to their long weekend in Vannes. The French parachutists welcomed them and invited Kevin to participate in some big formation skydiving. So the first two days of their honeymoon were spent doing tandem skydives together and making new friends.

On their last day in Vannes — Sunday, June 3 — they decided to do one last tandem skydive before flying home to Jersey.

During their free-fall, they marveled once more at the spectacular view across Brittany. Then it was time to pull the ripcord and open the chute at 5,500 feet. Kevin looked up and saw that the parachute hadn’t inflated. Kevin had to take immediate action. Built into his parachute rig was an automatic opening device that operated the reserve parachute. If Kevin didn’t act quickly, the reserve would be released automatically, and it would almost certainly become entangled with the main chute. The result would be fatal.

Kevin yelled to Beverley to put her arms and legs back into free-fall position while he attempted to jettison the main chute. It wouldn’t release despite Kevin’s repeated efforts. Meanwhile, the ground was approaching at over 100 miles an hour. Kevin made a life-or-death decision — he deployed the reserve parachute with the main parachute still attached to the rig. It was an extremely dangerous maneuver, but his only chance of slowing their fall.

The chutes didn’t entangle, but the reserve parachute started to spin, almost colliding with the main parachute. Kevin worked furiously to keep the two parachutes apart, knowing that they mustn’t become entangled or the parachute would go out of control — and that would be the end.

Beverley stayed calm. In that moment, it was the only help she could offer. She trusted her husband to protect her as best he could. Meanwhile, Kevin was extremely busy: The parachutes would almost collide, then separate, then almost collide again, which sent Kevin and Beverley in and out of dives, their speed varying from a float to a plummet. The odds of their survival were not great. He decided to tell Beverley in case she might wish to say a prayer.

“Beverley, I don’t think we’re going to make it. I love you.”

“I love you, Kevin,” she replied. “Very much.”

Beverley relaxed into her fate, whatever it might be; she felt no sense of panic, although she did say a quick prayer. Kevin prepared for a crash landing. The ground raced up at them, and he was horrified to see that they were coming down among trees, buildings and combine harvesters at work. By sheer luck, or the grace of God, they fell clear of any obstacles, but they hit the ground with massive force.

They woke in a nearby hospital where a team of medical experts set to work. Beverley had broken both legs and her feet as well. Kevin’s lower left leg bones had broken and shattered his kneecap. The surgical team in France provided lifesaving initial emergency care, but it was decided that they should be flown home by air ambulance to Jersey since they were going to need extensive long-term treatment. There, the surgeon said that Beverley’s feet were so severely broken that she might never walk again. Kevin’s kneecap was shattered in so many pieces that it couldn’t be saved. The surgeon told Kevin that he would walk, but that he would never be able to run or exercise to any great extent. Thus began a long process of operations and rehabilitation.

One year after the accident, a party of us celebrated Beverley’s birthday at a local restaurant. Her ankles aren’t so flexible anymore, and she has metal pins in her feet, but she looked stunning. And I saw something that night that will stay with me always and remind me what strength of character really means. When she was walking towards me, her heel pressed down on one of the metal pins and for an instant, I saw her wince in excruciating pain. Then she smiled, straightened her shoulders and said, “Oh, it’s nothing. Have you all got enough to eat?”

Kevin has shown his own special brand of courage. Since leaving the hospital, he has worked out every day in the gym, without exception. He goes to spinning classes, and he works on the leg press to increase the flexibility in his left leg and strengthen the muscles around his knee. He cycles to and from work every day. His work has paid off. He passed his physical and got the all clear to pilot planes again.

According to the surgeons in France and Jersey, their injuries indicate they must have hit the ground at around sixty miles per hour. That they survived at all was a miracle — a honeymoon miracle. God must have known that they had more life to live together. And the paramedics who first arrived said that it was “good luck” that Beverley landed on top of Kevin, which prevented him from moving. Any slight movement could have severed the main artery of his leg that was still connected, and he would have likely died.

That day in Vannes, when Beverley and Kevin fell from the sky, lives that might have been lost were changed forever. Beverley’s radiant blue eyes still shine as she reflects on how that accident opened her to new insights. “I can’t wear high heels anymore, or run the way I used to — and I’ll probably never ski again. But I’ve developed patience, acceptance and a new sense of perspective. The day we married, I would never have believed that we could be even closer, but we are. My brave husband saved my life, and this experience has bonded us forever.”

 

~Joanne Reid Rodrigues
Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body & Soul

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