The moment my parachute failed

Emma's dream holiday became a living nightmare.

Emma Carey, 21, Gold Coast, Qld

My heart was thumping as I peered out of the helicopter. We were soaring high above the mountain ranges, and for the first time I felt a rush of nerves. Was I really going to do this?

Beside me, my best friend Jemma, 21, was crying and gripping her seat so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Jemma and I had been friends since kindergarten and two weeks earlier we’d embarked on a trip around Europe. So far we’d had a blast, ticking off activities on our bucket lists.

‘I’ve always dreamt of doing a skydive above the Swiss Alps,’ I’d told Jemma. ‘No way!’ she’d cried. ‘That sounds terrifying!’ But I was adamant that it’d be amazing. ‘Just think of the view!’ I laughed. It did take quite a lot of convincing to get Jemma to agree, but finally I talked her into joining me on the adrenaline fuelled adventure.

Now here we were flying 12,000 feet above the ground in a helicopter. As we were beginners, we were doing a tandem jump with instructors and we’d paid a little bit extra to have our trip documented on video. Giving the camera a nervous smile, I stood up. At least my instructor is strapped to me! I thought.

Jemma and I have been best friends since we were kids. Source: Supplied

“I could see the ground rushing towards us”

Having done a run through and safety lesson on the ground, it all sounded simple enough. We’d jump, freefall for a few seconds and then my instructor would pull the parachute cord and we’d cruise down to our landing spot.

I’m ready, I thought, mentally steeling myself before giving my instructor a thumbs up. Then, just like that, we leapt out. It felt as if I was weightless as the air rushed around me. Although the view was a bit disappointing as it was cloudy, I was having the time of my life.

After around 20 seconds, I felt a soft tug as the parachute went up. Expecting my instructor to give me a congratulatory high five – like I’d seen other skydivers do in their videos – I looked behind me. But he didn’t move.

And before I knew what was happening, suddenly my head jolted backwards. I felt my ponytail get caught up in something and pulled tight. Then, in front of me I saw the most terrifying thing. The parachute.

Shouldn’t it be above me? I thought, suddenly realising that something wasn’t right. ‘Is everything okay?’ I yelled into the wind, hoping my instructor could hear me. He didn’t reply and, looking down, I could see the ground rushing towards us.

My scars – Supplied

We were going way too fast and I had no idea what to do. It’s too late, I thought. This is it. Pulling up my legs and bracing for the impact, I knew I was going to hit the ground hard. The force shot through me as I crumpled into the earth.

We had landed in a field and my instructor was still strapped to my back, pinning me down. For a moment we lay there motionless and I tried to process what had happened. Then, I attempted to push myself up and roll over.

That’s when I realised I couldn’t move my legs. I was numb from the waist down. As pain radiated through my back and tears filled my eyes, I knew I was seriously hurt. After a few more minutes, my instructor finally stirred.

‘I think I’ve broken my legs,’ he mumbled before unbuckling himself, rolling off me and falling unconscious once more. Finally I heard Jemma’s voice as she landed nearby.

‘Help!’ I screamed. ‘I can’t feel my legs’. She and her instructor were quickly by my side and soon the area was filled with paramedics and police.I was taken to hospital and given pain medication which meant the next few days passed in a haze.

My recovery was a slow process – Supplied

It was only afterwards I discovered Jemma never left me during that time, sleeping on the floor beside my bed. A week passed before I really knew what was going on, and by then my mum, Lisa, 48, and my sister, Tara, 23, had arrived to support me too. I felt so relieved to have survived my terrifying plunge, but I wasn’t prepared for what my doctor told me next.

‘You’ve broken your pelvis and your spine in two places and crushed your spinal cord,’ he said gently, before continuing. ‘It is unlikely that you will ever walk again.’ The words sliced through me like a knife. I was in the middle of my dream trip. How could it be true?

Learning more about what had happened that fateful day, I discovered the main parachute had become tangled somehow, choking my instructor unconscious and leaving me in a freefall with no way of landing safely. It was incredible we’d both survived.

As I lay in hospital I thought of all the things I had taken for granted in life. I had always been fit and healthy, but until now I’d never appreciated how lucky I was to have legs that worked. I felt like I had wasted time worrying about things that didn’t matter.

originally published in that’s life! issue 39, October 2, 2014

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