Second victim in sky-diving crash dies
The Japanese visitor was under water for more than 10 minutes, trapped in a parachute
AFTER SHE hit the water Friday morning, Saori Takahashi was probably conscious.
But there's little the 33-year-old could have done to stop pounding surf with 8-foot faces from driving her and her 69-year-old tandem sky-diving instructor underwater. Within minutes, strings from their parachute had caught on the reef, tangling in the coral and making Takahashi's escape virtually impossible.
Her fight for life -- wrestling with parachute cords and the straps that attached Takahashi to her Skydive Hawaii instructor, Erich "Max" Mueller -- may have only further entangled the Japanese visitor, who was pronounced dead at 10:30 p.m. Friday after being kept on life support at Wahiawa General Hospital for more than 11 hours.
The accident has spurred Skydive Hawaii owner Frank Hinshaw to look at what can be done to make water landings safer, including providing water rescue training for his employees. And he's already pledged to upgrade the knives his sky-diving instructors jump with, so they'll be able to more easily free themselves of parachute cords in an emergency.
"We don't want to be caught twice in the same situation," Hinshaw said. "We're not done learning what we can do to make things better."
With Dillingham Airfield just across the street from the beach, water landings are common and usually uneventful, Hinshaw said.
But they also don't often involve tandem jumpers.
Also, Hinshaw said Takahashi's apparent struggle -- along with the otherwise normal jump and good sky-diving conditions -- suggests Mueller was unconscious when he landed in the water. Mueller was pronounced dead at Wahiawa General about 11:30 a.m. Friday, and an autopsy is set for tomorrow.
The native German who had made Hawaii his home in recent years had an up-to-date medical clearance, which is required by the Federal Aviation Administration, but may have suffered a medical problem during the drop, Hinshaw said.
"I think the autopsy will shed the most light on what happened," Hinshaw said. "That's our best hope. We're still as baffled as everyone else. The parachute was operating perfectly. So was the equipment."
Both Mueller and Takahashi were underwater for more than 10 minutes before rescuers could get to them.
For Takahashi, Hinshaw said, "it was an impossible situation."
In a meeting with Skydive Hawaii instructors yesterday, Hinshaw asked for suggestions on how to better equip sky divers for landing in the surf. At the top of the list, Hinshaw said, was giving instructors 7-inch hook knives, which would be carried on a leg or chest strap and used to cut parachute cords in an emergency.
Many of the instructors already carry 3-inch hook knives supplied with their gear, Hinshaw said, though one could not be found on Mueller.
Hinshaw also has plans to better equip a kayak used to help those who make water landings. The craft is stored in a loft in Skydive Hawaii's equipment room and is usually used to retrieve parachutes that blow into the water.
He said fins and a hook knife will be put in the kayak.
Also, Hinshaw said he's considering whether to equip tandem jumpers with life preservers, which are already required for students.
Mueller was not wearing a flotational device when he landed in the water.
But even if he was, Hinshaw said, it likely wouldn't have helped Takahashi because she probably didn't know how to release it. "The passenger is taught the minimum so that they can experience sky diving just to have the experience," Hinshaw said. "We wouldn't go into how to use a life preserver."
Pacific International Skydiving Center, the only other sky-diving business on Oahu that has its own planes, declined to comment on its safety procedures.
Meanwhile, Mueller's family in Germany, which includes a daughter, brother and sister, has plans to scatter his ashes in Hawaii.
Skydive Hawaii sky divers are also planning a memorial, Hinshaw said.
Takahashi's boyfriend, who was also sky diving Friday and landed just before the 33-year-old, could not be reached.
Skydive Hawaii halted operations after the accident yesterday, but re-opened yesterday. Hinshaw said about 40 people made jumps by the end of the day, which is average for a weekend.
"Everybody has a deep sense of loss," Hinshaw said. "But we know that Max would want us to be sky diving. This is what he enjoyed. This was his life."
Skydive Hawaii owner Frank Hinshaw said he would make a number of changes to better ready his instructors for water landings. The safety measures include:
» Increasing the size of "hook knives" many instructors carry in a shoulder or leg strap. Now, instructors carry 3-inch knives. Hinshaw plans to provide them with 7-inch knives.
» Providing water-rescue training to his employees.
» Better-equipping a kayak, stored at the business, to provide assistance to those in the water. The kayak will hold a life preserver, a hook knife and snorkeling gear.