Three skydivers die in Antarctica, leaving the world to ask, “Why?”
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Dispatches, February 1998
‘There’s no rhyme or reason for doing something like this,” Ray Miller, a 43-year-old Ohio marketing entrepreneur, said last October of his upcoming attempt to skydive over the South Pole. “You either understand it or you don’t.” This
The mission apparently began exactly as planned. Following a six-hour flight from Antarctica’s Patriot Hills field site, the team’s chartered Twin Otter touched down at 7 a.m. near the Amundsen-Scott Station, where they posed for obligatory thumbs-up snapshots and took off again. The weather was clear and a relatively balmy minus-22 degrees. As the plane climbed to 8,000 feet
Things quickly went awry. The foursome hoped to link in formation, track away from each other, and open their chutes by 3,500 feet. After several failed attempts to hook up, Kearns realized they’d already dropped below 2,000 feet, so he tracked away and reached for his rip cord. As he did, his automatic activation device (AAD), an altitude sensor that triggers the reserve
Within three minutes, both Kearns and the Norwegians had touched down safely. Miller, Mulholland, and Rezac were not so lucky; Mulholland’s partially opened canopy hadn’t had time to inflate, and Miller and Rezac never even pulled their rip cords. The trio penetrated three feet deep into the Pole’s hard-packed crust.
“They didn’t do anything really stupid,” contends Bill Booth, a Florida skydiving outfitter who’d previously jumped with Miller. “It was probably a combination of little errors.” Indeed, all three men had considerable expertise: Miller had jumped some 500 times in the last 15 years, and was part of a record-setting 83-diver expedition to the North Pole in 1994; Mulholland was
But this high-altitude attempt posed several hazards, which may not have been dealt with properly. The free-fall velocity of approximately 150 miles per hour in the thin air (as compared to 120 at lower elevations) can throw off jumpers’ timing. Hypoxia can affect judgment and vision. And the featureless Antarctic snowscape wreaks havoc on one’s depth perception. It was the
The tragedy promises to foster plenty of second-guessing about future expeditions. Says U. S. Parachute Association spokeswoman Dany Brooks: “Mass fatalities just don’t happen in this sport.” Now that one has, Bob Christ anticipates another aftereffect. “This,” he says, without a hint of irony, “may well end all skydiving in Antarctica.”
Photograph by David E. Martin