Before The Story Broke

The rescue happened at Skydive Arizona just outside of Coolidge, AZ, in the late morning of Saturday, April 18, 1987. That particular weekend, Skydive Arizona was hosting the annual Easter Boogie. (Note: A boogie is large gathering of skydivers). The highlight of the boogie was the annual appearance of a DC-4 as one of the jump planes. This DC-4 had been coming to Coolidge for the Easter Boogie for several years and attracted a great number of jumpers. Normally, the drop zone sported two or three Beech 18s and a couple of Cessna 182s.

The pilots of the DC-4 were friends of mine and they has asked me to work as the Loadmaster on the airplane for the weekend. The Loadmaster assigned the exit order for the different groups of jumpers, directed the loading the jumpers into the airplane, provided course corrections to the pilots on jump run, and told the groups of jumpers when to get out. I would normally jump with one of the last groups out. On this one particular load, I decided to follow out a group of inexperienced jumpers. The woman that I rescued was in that group.

There were no direct witnesses except myself to the rescue. Debbie Williams, the woman that I saved, had no recollection of what had happened. Her short-term memory of the event had been erased by her collision with another jumper in the air. Guy Fitzwater, the man who she collided with and whose leg she broke, knew he had been hit by Debbie and saw her spining away unconscious. But he saw nothing else. The only proof that my story was true was that I had Debbie’s reserve ripcord handle in my hand when I landed.

After the medics on the ground succeeded in keeping Debbie alive and she had been arilifted out and Guy had been transported to the hospital, I went back to jumping. The next day, Sunday the 19th, there were lots of handshakes and pats on my back, but otherwise, it was just a normal day of jumping.

Monday at work also was normal. I told a few friends about the events on Saturday, but I think most of them just took it as another one of my exaggerated jumping stories. During the day, I called the hospital to see how Debbie was doing. After I talked to her boyfriend and her parents, I agreed to come over Tuesday evening to visit them and Debbie.

It was during that next day, Tuesday the 21st, that the media began to take an interest in the story. In the early afternoon, I got a telephone call at work from a Phoenix Gazette reporter. We talked for a few minutes so that he could verify the basis of the story that he had gotten from someone and I agreed to meet with him at the hospital that evening for an interview.

I met him in the waiting room of the hospital after visiting with Debbie. We sat down and I went through the story for him. The interview lasted a little over an hour. Most of the time was spent answering his questions that mainly focused on translating skydiver-speak into understandable English. After he took a few pictures, he told me he’d write it up and see what his editor wanted to do with it.

I got a call shortly after lunch the next day, Wednesday the 22nd, from a man who identified himself as being with the Associated Press. He said he need to ask me a few questions about the story to verify it. His boss had told him to send it out over the wires with some high priority designation if it turned out to be true. After answering his questions, I asked him if it had made it into the paper. He said that it was on the front page.

He then said two words that I’ll never forget.

“Good Luck.”

Looking back on that statement, I  think he had an idea of what was about to happen.

I left work to go buy a newspaper to see what they had written up. When I got to the closest store, I grabbed a copy of the paper and looked quickly over the front page. I didn’t see the story. I was looking for a small article with the words “skydiving” or “parachuting” in it, but the whole front page above the banner seemed to be a single story accompanied by a large picture. As I began to focus more on the overall front page, I realized the large picture was of me and the story covered the entire width of the paper. (Click here to see the story.)

A few of my skydiving friends called me that night about the story. I went to bed thinking that that was that. The next morning, the 23rd, is best described by saying “All Hell Breaking Loose.”

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