When The Parachute Failed

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What is it that makes someone stop and help a stranger in need? WBUR is exploring that question in a radio series, Kind World, featuring stories of kindness and the profound effect that one act can have on a person's life.

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For David Hartsock and Shirley Dygert, that one act happened in under 30 seconds. In fact, their entire friendship was formed and put to the ultimate test in that period of time. That's how long it took them to fall to the earth from a plane. Hartsock and Dygert tell the story of the day they met in the summer of 2009 on an airfield in Texas.

SHIRLEY DYGERT: I'm a mail carrier, rural mail carrier, in Groesbeck, Texas. I am not the kind of person that would naturally be drawn to skydiving. I'm not one to take chances like that.

DAVID HARTSOCK: For myself, it's kind of like therapy, almost. Because when you're skydiving, you can't be thinking about, "Did I leave the oven on? Oh my gosh, I've got that paperwork that I gotta do for work."

DYGERT: My older son had gone skydiving on his 30th birthday. So when my younger son, two years later, decided to celebrate his 30th birthday the same way, he invited me along. At that time, I just looked over at my husband and he's, like, very wide-eyed, looking at me, "Hmm? You're really going to do this?" I says, "Oh my gosh, yeah, let's do it!"

HARTSOCK: It was obvious she was nervous about it. So I tried to make it as lighthearted as possible.

DYGERT: He just comes walking straight up to me, looking right in my eye, and stuck his hand out there and introduced himself.

HARTSOCK: One of the things I always tell my students to try to calm their nerves is that we're connected up there, there's no way the person is going to get away from me, so I told her that, "You can be sure that nothing's going to happen to you because I'm going to make sure nothing happens to me."

DYGERT: And so we go taxiing off. We're, like, above the clouds, we're way up there. It looked like I was going to be doing this. Yeah.

HARTSOCK: We got to the door. I crossed her hands in front of her, tilted her head back against my shoulder, and rocked forward, back in the plane, and then out we go.

DYGERT: "One, two, three." And we bailed out of the plane. We did a free fall for awhile. You didn't feel like you were really falling, you felt like you were in a wind tunnel almost, or something like that, it was just very windy. And it was beautiful; I couldn't hardly wait until the parachute would open and then I could just really get a good view of everything.

Shirley Dygert is strapped in for the jump by David Hartsock. (Courtesy)
Shirley Dygert is strapped in for the jump by David Hartsock. (Courtesy)

HARTSOCK: I deployed the primary parachute. You're expecting to go into a nice smooth glide and instead we got hit like a brick wall. The canopy was flapping very hard because half of it had not inflated.

DYGERT: We were going around so fast and so hard, we were, like, laying out flat, we were going around like that. It just made me very dizzy.

HARTSOCK: I realized, well, I've got to cut this canopy away so it will get away from us, and then I can deploy the reserve parachute. But the way the parachute had so violently opened, it had jerked the harness that she was in and the harness I was in, and the handle that should have been right accessible on the right side of my body had folded underneath the harness I was wearing.

DYGERT: I could hear him grunting and trying hard. You could just hear him, "Uh," trying hard to reach something.

Hartsock at the airfield. (Courtesy)
Hartsock at the airfield. (Courtesy)

HARTSOCK: And so that's when she asked me if everything was okay. And I was honest with her and told her, no it was not okay, that we had a serious problem.

DYGERT: And it's like the world stopped. And all I could think about was my husband not really wanting me to go, and why did I push for this? What is happening? I can't believe this might happen.

HARTSOCK: I realized that we were in a very, very serious situation. And it was probably not going to end well.

DYGERT: I thought about my mom, I had just lost my mom not too long before that, and I thought about seeing my mom again, and knew I was going to. And then when I thought about my mom, I thought about my kids. My kids and my grand-kids—three grandchildren—and my husband and my other son were on the ground watching this. And I just said, God, I didn't want them to have to see this.

I just knew this was my moment, that this was my last day on earth.

HARTSOCK: Knowing that her two sons and her husband could see their mother and wife spinning into the ground, thinking, "Oh my God, she's going to be dead." And I wasn't going to let that happen no matter what. At that point, you know, we were probably down to 3,000 feet. And I went ahead and deployed the reserve parachute, but unfortunately all it did was get tangled up into the main parachute.

I was looking down at the ground to see where we were headed. It's pretty much a farm area, so there's houses, barns, barbed wire fences, all kinds of things you can hit that it's going to kill you. I had a brief thought about, "Well, this is my fate, oh well." You know, the primary thing now is to make sure that at least one of us survives, and that one person that needs to survive is the student. And I figured what I would do is swing my body underneath hers, so that way she would land on me. The last three seconds just as we were spinning in, I told her to raise her legs.

DYGERT: He said, "Get ready for a rough landing, Shirley."

I was laying right smack on top of David. He was on his back on the ground, I was right on top of him. And I could hear him trying to breathe, like let out a hard breath. All I could think about is, "Oh my gosh, we've got to help him get up." I didn't think about all that could be wrong with him, I just wanted him to get up.

HARTSOCK: When I woke up in the hospital, I think the first time that I can actually remember waking up, my mom was right there by my bedside. And because of the collapsed lungs, they had to do a tracheotomy, so I have a trach in my throat. So I couldn't speak, I couldn't move any of my limbs, my mom was there and she told me I was a quadriplegic. I had broken the bone in my neck and I was paralyzed from the chest down.

I was thinking, "Well, that ain't so bad. You know? I'm still alive," which, you know, surprised the hell out of me.

DYGERT: I went into the intensive care unit and I talked with him. He couldn't talk, he had a deal in his mouth that he couldn't really talk, but his eyes told me everything. When he saw the neck brace on me, tears just ran down his cheeks. He felt so bad that I had been hurt; I could not believe it, that he could be so caring about everybody, and he was hurting so bad.

But I hugged him at that time, and I kissed him on the side of his forehead and I told him that I loved him.

You know, I've always been the kind of person that kind of looked out for someone else, too. But this was so above and beyond anything you can imagine. Goodness, what could have gone through his head when we were going down? And he knew what was going to happen, and he was just trying to make sure that I got out of this okay. You know, he was going to take the whole brunt of it. I mean, for me. For me, little old me.

Ever since this happened, there has not been one day that I have not thought about him.

Has someone changed your life? How did you get through a dark time? We want to hear your stories of extraordinary kindness. Just send us a message or email


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