Pair in skydiving accident was attempting tandem jump
Cause of instructor, student fall probed
It is billed as safe in a sport where safe is a relative term: the tandem skydive.
In the front is a novice skydiving student, strapped behind the student, an experienced instructor. Together, they jump and descend under a large parachute. The maneuver is designed to give a newcomer the thrill of jumping from an airplane, and nothing more.
But about 5 p.m. Sunday in Barnstable, something went horribly wrong when two men doing a tandem skydive missed their landing area at Cape Cod Airfield and crashed into a shed in the backyard of a home across the street.
Andrew Munson, 29, of Nantucket, and his instructor, Eldon Burrier, 48, of West Lynnwood, Wash., were killed in the fall.
A friend of Munson's, who spoke on condition that she not be named, said she was in the plane with Munson and made a tandem jump with another instructor just seconds after him. After she landed, witnesses on the ground told her that Munson's and Burrier's parachute had opened, but that it appeared to be tangled and "they lost control."
She added that on the flight up to altitude, "both instructors were complaining about how it was their 16th jump of the day, and both of them were saying they were tired but had two more to go."
Authorities are hoping that footage from a sports camera that one of the men — and possibly both — was wearing during the jump will provide clues, said Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who said he believes the incident was a terrible accident.
The Federal Aviation Administration is leading the investigation to determine what caused the jumpers to stray off course and crash.
The two men were jumping with a small commercial outfit called Skydive Barnstable, which specializes in tandem jumps for newcomers.
"The single-most common question we get from first-
timers always pertains to the risks involved in skydiving," reads a section on safety and preparation on the Skydive Barnstable website. "The short answer is that it is actually safer than you think but like most things in life there are inherent risks to be mindful of."
Skydive Barnstable declined to comment in an e-mail. The FAA said it has had no prior enforcement action and no accident investigations involving Skydive Barnstable.
There are about 3 million skydiving jumps each year, and 500,000 of those are tandem jumps, said Ed Scott, executive director of the US Parachute Association.
Statistically, tandem jumps lead to three fatalities for every million jumps, according to data kept by the parachute association. Most fatalities involve experienced solo skydivers who are pushing the envelope of the sport, said Chris Milot of Boston, who has made about 4,000 solo jumps and 1,500 tandem jumps in his 11 years as an instructor.
"Tandems are straightforward, preplanned, and are designed to be very docile," said Milot, who added that most accidents happen to jumpers trying experimental techniques, such as tricks on landing, in-air formations, or jumping in risky environments, such as "BASE" jumping from a fixed object like a mountain or a bridge.
Milot said there are several things that could have gone wrong on the tandem jump, including a canopy that collapsed due to high winds, entanglement of the parachute lines, or instructor error. Milot said tandems typically occur under a 400-square-foot canopy, capable of holding 550 pounds, and equipment is inspected before every jump and, by law, chutes are packed by a certified master parachute rigger.
Munson and Burrier are the 22d and 23d persons to die this year in skydiving accidents, but there has only been one other fatal tandem jump this year, according to the parachute association. It occurred in New York state when the skydivers were caught in a dust-devil, a mini tornado, that slammed them to the ground, according to the parachute association. The student jumper was killed in the crash.
In 2010, the Seattle Times reported that Burrier, the instructor who died in the Barnstable crash, was rescued after his parachute got caught on a rock outcropping while attempting a BASE jump from a mountain in Washington state. He spent the night dangling 600 feet off the ground, and called 911 from his cellphone. That jump was reportedly in honor of a friend who had died jumping from the same peak a week prior. After being rescued, Burrier was arrested on an outstanding warrant for having previously made an illegal base jump from a bridge.
According to that article, Burrier was a landscaper and former Army paratrooper. In 2004, he was quoted in a New York Times article about a "pond swooping" competition in which skydivers skim a pond with their feet as they come in for a fast landing. "I'm a speed freak, and this is a serious taste of speed," Burrier was quoted as saying.
Attempts to reach his wife and family were unsuccessful.
On Nantucket, friends of Andrew Munson were mourning the loss of a man known for his love of adventure.
"He was very active. He ran triathlons. He kite surfed, skateboarded, snowboarded, played volleyball. He did everything," said Matthew Fry, 24, a friend on the island who worked with Munson at Don Allen Ford, where Munson was a service technician for 10 years, according to the dealership. "He was a very adventurous, daredevil type of guy, so it wasn't surprising for him to go skydiving. He just wanted to do everything."
Rich Facteau, a service manager at Don Allen Ford, said the news was hitting his coworkers hard. "It hasn't been a good day at all," said Facteau, who described Munson as a free spirit, but a good worker.
A Nantucket neighbor, Christine Hoshue, said she met Munson about five years ago when she saw him running around in the rain, searching for his lost puppy, which she helped him find.
"He was a good kid,'' said Hoshue. "He was just so smart, so cute, and so comfortable with himself."
Matt Dixon, 44, one of the captains of the Nantucket Fire Department, played volleyball with Munson three or four times a week at Nobadeer Beach, and said he was a man who "lived 200 percent every day."
"He was truly the kind of person who could walk into a room and everyone wanted to hang out with him," Dixon said. "He had that kind of energy."