January 29, 2014

Joshua girl survives 3,000-foot fall after parachute malfunction

Tulsa doctor says 16-year-old Makenzie Wethington of Joshua is in good condition but with several broken bones. She hit the ground when her parachute malfunctioned during her first skydiving jump in Chickasha, Okla.

A 16-year-old Joshua girl who fell more than 3,000 feet when her parachute malfunctioned while skydiving Saturday in Oklahoma is recovering from many injuries, a doctor said Tuesday.

Makenzie Wethington and her father jumped after taking several hours of lessons at a skydiving school in Chickasha. They made a static-line jump, where a parachute is connected to a lanyard that’s attached to the plane and opens automatically when a diver jumps out of the plane.

Robert Swainson, owner of the skydiving school, said Makenzie’s parachute opened, but it went up and not out. Swainson said that can happen for several reasons, but that Makenzie and other divers were given instruction during a six-to-seven-hour training session beforehand on how to deal with such problems.

He also said Makenzie had a radio hookup in her helmet through which someone gave her instructions.

“It was correctable, but corrective action didn’t appear to have been taken,” said Swainson, who has run the skydiving business for nearly 30 years.

The girl’s injuries include damage to her liver and broken bones, including her pelvis, lumbar spine in her lower back, a shoulder blade and several ribs. She also has a broken tooth.

“If she truly fell 3,000 feet, I have no idea how she survived,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a trauma surgeon at OU Medical Center.

Not only did she survive, but she was in good condition Tuesday, Bender said, and was expected to be moved out of the intensive-care unit.

Bender spoke at a news conference at the hospital, where the girl’s parents also spoke to reporters.

The parents agreed to let her perform the jump, but her father, Joe Wethington, now says the skydiving company shouldn’t have allowed it.

“I don’t think she should have been allowed at 16 to go up there and perform that type of jump, no matter what I say or she says, she shouldn’t have been allowed,” Joe Wethington said at the news conference.

“I find it very hard to believe that the rules and regulations in Oklahoma are that lax. I think there is a flaw there somewhere, and I don’t think it’s through the state of Oklahoma. I think it’s the company. I’m not sure.”

Nancy Koreen, director of sport promotion at the Fredericksburg, Va.-based U.S. Parachute Association, said its safety requirements allow someone who is 16 to make a dive with parental consent, though some drop zones set the age higher.

Swainson, owner and chief instructor at Pegasus Air Sports Center in Chickasha, defended the company Tuesday. He noted that Joe Wethington went up with his daughter and was the first to jump.

Swainson said he did not jump out to help Wethington because there’s no way he could have reached her, and another jumper got cold feet and refused to make the jump. Swainson said it was protocol for him to remain with the frightened person because instructors don’t know what that person will do.

“The most I could have done is screamed,” he said.

Koreen, from the U.S. Parachute Association, spoke generally about skydiving rules and didn’t want to directly comment on Makenzie’s case. However, she agreed that a reluctant diver can’t be left alone in a plane and that even if an instructor exited the plane, he wouldn’t have been able to assist the student.

“You can’t fly over the parachute and help somebody,” she said.

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