A SKYDIVER was killed and 11 others forced to jump for their lives in a tragedy more than 4000m above central Victoria yesterday. Simon Moline, 31, of Malvern, was sucked from the plane when his parachute opened while he was standing inside the rear door. His parachute snagged on the Cessna's tail, ripping it from the fuselage and sending the plane into a death spin over Nagambie.
Brave pilot Barry Dawson fought to steady the stricken craft long enough for the 10 remaining skydivers on board to bail out before he escaped moments before impact.
"I had no control. I just yelled at them to `Get out, get out'.
I actually gave a `Mayday, mayday, mayday'," he said last night.
One of the distressed survivors, instructor Kim Foster, said the pilot was screaming at the others to jump.
"The plane started baulking all over the sky, and the pilot's yelling `Get out of the plane'," Ms Foster said.
Another survivor, Paul Murphy, said jumpers used their instincts to escape.
"I think self-preservation comes into it a lot," he said.
A shaken Mr Murphy said Mr Dawson's actions saved lives.
"I am not a pilot, but visibility and control of the plane would have been very limited due to the tail missing," he said.
The single-engine Cessna Caravan crashed in a ball of flame at the Nagambie Skydiving Club air strip at Bailieston East about 1.15pm.
Mr Moline, still alive, hit the ground near the plane's wreckage. Ambulance officers rushed to save him but he died of massive injuries soon after.
"The weight of the person has actually pulled the back end off the plane," Sgt Rick Van De Parerd, of Benalla, said.
Last night, Mr Moline's devastated family was trying to understand the tragedy.
"I have all my other children here and we are grieving together," his father, John, said.
The skydivers were practising for team competition at the time of the accident. Mr Moline was an experienced skydiver with about 2000 jumps in his log and was taking part in his eighth jump of the day.
The plane had taken off about 1pm and was flying over the Goulburn Valley Highway.
Shocked local Ron Sidebottom watched the fiery aftermath from the verandah of his Kettles Rd home just 300m away.
"Out on the verandah I saw flames and smoke off in the paddocks. Then I heard woof, woof, woof and I looked up and saw the plane tail coming down through the sky," he said.
"There were parachutists on either side, about three or four of them just floating down through the air along with the back half of the plane."
Mr Dawson said he could scarcely believe he was alive.
"I felt a sudden jolt from the rear of the aircraft. At the same time the aircraft started to spin out of control," he said.
"I thought of dying right there, and then thought of my girlfriend and new baby daughter.
"I couldn't bear the prospect of leaving them alone and never seeing them again. I just did whatever I had to to get out."
Mr Dawson managed to rip open a jammed roller door which had shut tight on the nightmare ride down and jumped out at 180m.
"We were about halfway down when I started getting out and the G-forces had shut the roller door.
"I thought about riding it in, just for a split second but then I thought about my new baby daughter and my girlfriend.
"I saw them alone if I died and decided not to.
"If I was a second later getting out I would be dead.
"My feet hit the ground and I just couldn't believe it."
His emergency parachute opened just in time to get him clear of the fireball which erupted when the plane crashed.
Mr Dawson said he was being thrown around inside the plane as he tried to reach the door.
His helmet and one boot were ripped off as he was buffeted by debris and pieces of equipment being hurled around inside.
He was the first of the survivors to reach the ground.
"When I landed I was devastated to hear a parachutist had died," he said.
Paul Murray, of the Australian Parachute Federation, praised Mr Dawson's efforts.
"I think it's a very, very heroic task he's done to get out. It would have been a hard job to get out that door," Mr Murray said.
"The sport does have its risks, but the people doing the sport do understand that these risks are there and they accept those risks."
Two Australian Transport Safe ty Bureau investigators were on their way to the scene late last night. A coroner, police and the parachute federation were also investigating.
One experienced skydiver said last night that in normal circumstances the parachutist would have about 55 seconds of free-fall before opening the chute.
"It's very easy for the pins that hold the parachutes to be knocked while still in the plane," he said.
"It would then start to inflate too soon, be sucked out, be wrapped around the tail and there would be little you could do about it."
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association president Bill Hamilton said the pilot would have known almost instantly the plane was in trouble when the parachutist crashed into the tail.
"The weight of the body would upset the whole balance of the aircraft," Mr Hamilton said.
The death is the first parachuting death in Australia this year. Two divers died last year, while one was killed in 1999.
The parachute federation has more than 3000 registered jumpers.