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Parachutist caught in storm

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A skydiver who was sucked into a thundercloud and landed unscathed has picked up the nickname "Little Miracle." Montreal student Mathieu Gagnon walked out of the Ottawa Hospital Monday morning, laughing at jokes and promising to leap out of an airplane again soon. Except for sore muscles, the 21-year-old was unharmed from a bizarre accident Sunday.

"This is something that we will be talking about in the skydiving world for the rest of our lives," said Martin Audit, president of Paramax, a Gatineau, Que., skydiving company.

"He was in the black cloud with the lightning and everything," said Julie Desjardins, a Paramax employee who tracked the near-disaster from the ground. "He's a very lucky guy."

But Gagnon, a skydiver with 20 other jumps under his belt, has refused to talk about the accident for fear it will give people the wrong impression of his sport.

On Sunday afternoon, he was one of five experienced parachutists on board Paramax's Cessna 182 as it climbed above the Gatineau Airport. Each had signed a waiver and paid $32 for the jump.

Thunderstorm warnings had been issued for the region but local conditions seemed safe, Desjardins said. "We do not let them jump if there's a storm coming in. The tower will say: 'No, stop. Land with the plane.' The pilot will say the same also."

The go-ahead came because southerly winds were moving torrential rains and high winds in the opposite direction, Desjardins said. "The storm was about four kilometres away. It just suddenly turned, and it was amazing. I had never seen that in my life. Ever."

Just before 5 p.m., the five men leapt out of the small plane about 2,000 metres above the ground. Within a minute, the winds had shifted, sending dark clouds hurtling toward the jumpers.

The skydivers knew they were in trouble. But Gagnon, who had been the first to open his parachute, was a few hundred metres above the others. He was the only one sucked into a black cloud.

From the ground, Audit watched in panic as Gagnon disappeared. For five minutes, Gagnon was missing. He later told Audit that he was trapped in a black fog, hurtling upwards. Gagnon checked his altimeter -- he had climbed 1,000 metres. He cut away his main parachute and tumbled toward the ground until he was out of the clouds.

Then Gagnon opened his reserve parachute and drifted helplessly. About 15 minutes later, he landed on the south side of the Ottawa River, in Orleans, Ont., about 25 kilometres south of the airfield where he was supposed to touch down.

He ended up on a road a few kilometres from the river, and was jarred when his chute snagged on a parked car, Desjardins said. Area resident Ronald Wright heard a crash and found Gagnon in his driveway, alert but unable to talk.

Back in Quebec, the four other parachuters had already landed -- all but one a few kilometres away from the landing spot near the airport. One man broke both his legs.

"It was the worst experience of their lives," Audit said. "When the big wind catches you, you don't know if you are going to survive. They were crying when they landed on the ground -- they were that happy to be alive."

~ Patti Edgar for the Edmonton Journal

Mathieu's story in his own words..

I thought about giving my own version of what happened that Sunday June 23rd 2002, since it happened to me. I think sharing this experience with other skydivers is good for the community's knowledge. On my side, a great part of my actions were inspired by stories, facts and tricks that I had heard.

First, I am a novice, this jump was my 24th - the 5th of my current season. I was then testing equipment that I just bought (Hurricane 220, Racer, Phantom 24, no AAD). Upon takeoff, the weather was acceptable, the wind was calm, the ceiling was at about 7000ft. I was the last to exit, since I was opening at 4000' - to test my equipment.

Already upon opening, the problems began : line twists and one line had also broken. My canopy was still manoeuvrable. I was heading slowly for the dropzone when I noticed the wind changed its direction, and was getting stronger and stronger. I was at 3000' at that moment.

Suddenly I was in a big grey cloud, for I very well knew that there were no clouds under or around me… I checked my altitude: I was now at 6000ft… and all this happened in less than 30 seconds! In the cloud, the wind was very strong and it was coming from every direction. I tried to pull on my front risers to loose some altitude, but a canopy of 220sq.ft. in such conditions overwhelmed me - when I succeeded in lowering them slightly, the wind was gaining the control back on it very brutally, and I was scared that my canopy would not resist such strong gusts.

The idea of cutting away came to me at that moment (I had already heard a similar story). I looked at both my handles, took a deep breath and pulled the cut-away. That was my first cut-away and I must admit that the feeling of falling from the canopy is something special.

I pulled the reserve at about 3000', which I consider a mistake in its own. I was out of the grey cloud, but I was still quite high, and not going down - but nevertheless I was not going up either! I was still unable to pull of the front risers with my arms because of the strong wind. Then it occurred to me to use my legs in order to lower the front risers. The wind was too strong, and my 145lbs was not sufficient to pull both risers at the same time. But with all my weight pulling on 2-3 lines at the front, I was able to loose little altitude at a time. This was hard and long work, very eventful. I succeeded in getting as low as 1000ft. Still, I consider it an error to have opened my reserve at 3000ft, this is probably what allowed me to cross the "Outaouais River", which is by the way a very large river.

In the last 1000 feet I was falling much faster. I was not able to orient my round canopy, neither to brake; so I made a hard landing. I had landed on my feet, but I fell on my back afterward, my canopy got hooked on a car parked not very far from where I landed). After that, people from the home I landed on came to my help and called an ambulance. I was in pretty bad shape at that moment, but I got away with some cracked ribs and a back sprain. Later on, people told me I landed between 20 to 25 km (12-16 miles) from the dropzone, and that was in the sky for 25 to 30 minutes.

Mathieu Atze Gagnon

June 25th 2002

Now you may ask yourself this question: what would I have done? There were 5 other jumpers on that load. Only one made the dropzone, the other three landed about a kilometer away. One of them broke both his legs (he cut away his main to avoid being dragged by the strong wind and to not aggravate his wounds). Other fact, the police department of Ottawa found the canopy on June 26th 2002. Where exactly and in what condition; we don't yet know.

Translated from Mathieu's testimonial on the www.freefly.ca web site, by Louis Allard.



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