Thursday, August 9, 2012

Seattle man killed in paragliding accident north of Whistler, B.C.

 
Photo courtesy of Clifford family 
 Seattle’s John Clifford, seen here in this 2007 photo with daughter, Kaya, died after crashing into the Lillooet River during Canadian National Paragliding Championship competition in Pemberton on Monday (Aug. 6).

The RCMP is continuing its investigation into the death of a Seattle man who drowned while in Pemberton to compete in the Canadian National Paragliding Championships.

John Clifford, 55, crashed into the Lillooet River during competition on Monday (Aug. 6). His body was recovered on Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 7).

Clifford, a tandem paragliding instructor, is survived by wife, Kathy, and 5-year-old daughter, Kaya.

The victim’s family members contacted The Question and described Clifford as a “very experienced pilot” who was “much loved.”

Police and event organizers are still trying to determine exactly what caused Clifford to crash into the river 18 kilometres northwest of Pemberton.

“The investigation has revealed that the victim was flying at an altitude of 300 feet when he appeared to lose control and went into the water,” said an RCMP press release.

Competitors were ordered out of the air at approximately 5:10 p.m. on Monday as a storm front approached. A press release from event officials issued Tuesday said almost all other competitors had landed safely on the ground by that time, but “it is believed that Clifford somehow flew himself near to the edge of the front at a relatively low altitude over the river” when the accident took place. He crashed into the water about 20 minutes after the order to land was made.

Clifford’s body was found underneath a log jam in the water on Tuesday, approximately 200 metres from the crash site, said the RCMP.

“This is extremely unfortunate for John, his family and friends,” said event co-organizer Nigel Protter in the release. “All of us involved in the event… are devastated and we’re thinking deeply about what this means for John’s loved ones.”

Protter said race officials were well aware of the weather conditions and “clearly communicated” that to pilots in a mandatory, pre-race briefing. More than 65 competitors safely completed the day’s course.

Protter added that pilots are ultimately responsible for their own safety and that “good pilot decision-making is by far the most important factor in safe flying” but the urge to get to a race goal in competition can sometimes affect that process.

“Our understanding is that he, for some reason, wasn’t pulling a proper deep spiral to get himself down,” Protter said in a later interview. “He shouldn’t have been where he was at the time.

“It does happen. Good (pilots) find themselves in bad situations.”

The victim’s sister, Christen Clifford, emailed The Question to say she found comments from event organizers “painful to a family in grief,” particularly after speaking with event safety director Pete Michelmore. She said Michelmore told her that John Clifford did exactly “what I would have done” in a similar situation and felt as though organizers were trying to place all blame on the victim rather than categorizing it as a “freak accident.”

“I understand that organizers of the (event) have to distance themselves from any blame; it’s their job, of course,” she wrote.

When asked to respond, Protter said organizers’ comments had been misinterpreted, as it wasn’t their intention to place fault on the late Clifford or to imply he wasn’t a capable pilot.

“We’re not saying anything negative about John… this could have happened to anyone,” he said. “(Risk is) a part of the game and I think John knew that. He had to have.

“I didn’t know him, personally, but a lot of the pilots here do and there was never anything negative said about John. There were a lot of fond memories of him.”

Protter added that organizers are looking forward to meeting with Clifford’s family members, who are expected to come up to Pemberton before the end of the event.

“We’re going to go out of our way to do anything we can to help them come to terms with their loss,” he said. “We’re here for them.”

Competition was suspended on Tuesday out of respect for the victim but organizers plan to continue with the event until its planned conclusion on Sunday (Aug. 12).

Clifford is the third person to die in a gliding accident in the province this year, said the B.C. Coroners Service.


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