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Marijuana in skydiver's system

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A skydiving instructor who died in July while attempting to land on a pond at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa was seriously impaired by smoking marijuana within two hours of his death, according to a toxicology report released Wednesday.

The report was made public an at inquest conducted by LaSalle County Coroner Jody Bernard into the death of Ronald Passmore Jr., 33, who died July 14 when he slammed chest first into the pond at the jump zone and died of a severed aorta. A coroner's jury declared the death accidental.

Passmore's death was the sixth in a year at Skydive Chicago, a fatality rate eight times higher than the national average. He was the second instructor to die there this year and the second fatality since July 2001 in which drugs were found in the victim's system.

The toxicology report, prepared by St. Louis University Hospital laboratory officials, showed Passmore's blood had a cannabis level about double that at which a person is considered impaired, according to laboratory director Dr. Christopher Long.

"This (level in Passmore's blood) demonstrates relatively acute smoking within the last couple of hours before his death," said Long. This is serious impairment due to marijuana--cannabis--that would affect everything you could possibly use to skydive, particularly reaction time and depth perception."

Efforts to reach Roger Nelson, operator of the Skydive Chicago, and Chris Needels, head of the U.S. Parachute Association, were unsuccessful.

Needels was present at the jump zone for a USPA board of directors meeting on the day that Passmore and two other skydivers jumped from a plane with high-performance parachutes to perform a landing known as "pond swooping."

The landing is a difficult maneuver in which a skydiver skims across the water, much like a water-skier, and then walks ashore. On that day, word had been passed that the three planned to swoop the tiny swimming pond at the dive zone and a small crowd had gathered.

According to one observer, the first skydiver managed the maneuver successfully, but the second stalled into the water. Passmore was the final diver and as he came in, he made a sharp hook turn and pancaked onto the water, severing his aorta and causing numerous other internal injuries, according to the autopsy report.

After Passmore's death, Nelson said he banned pond swooping at the jump zone.

Passmore, a veteran of more than 1,300 jumps, had been living at the campground that is part of the Skydive Chicago compound and was working as an instructor for Nelson. Instructors are paid a fee, usually about $25, to accompany students who are taking up the sport. Skydive Chicago is one of the busiest drop zones in the Midwest with about 75,000 jumps a year.

On May 18, John Faulkner, 28, also an instructor at the jump zone who was living at the campground, collided in the air with another jumper, rendering him unconscious. His backup chute failed despite being equipped with a device to open it automatically. No drugs or alcohol were detected in his system.

On Oct. 18, 2001, Bruce Greig, of Jacksonville, Ill., died when his chute became entangled and he went into a spin. His emergency chute deployed too close to the ground and he died of chest injuries. A toxicology report was positive for cocaine, marijuana and Ecstasy.



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