Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hollister, California: Tragedy Sheds Light On Skydiving Regulations

HOLLISTER (KPIX 5) – A Bay Area family has sued a skydiving school after their daughter plunged to her death. While their daughter checked out the school and found it had a great safety record, the school never revealed that other people died there.

Jumping out of a moving plane at 18,000 feet is not for the faint of heart. But hundreds of people a year come to Skydive Hollister to experience the adrenaline rush.

Jennifer McCoun was one of them. Her parents, Jim and Marilyn said their daughter did a lot of research back in 2009 to find the safest school.

The Hollister drop zone claimed it had never had a fatality.

“She went out of her way to tell us how safe this was,” Marilyn McCoun said.

But on her 17th jump, Jennifer fell to her death.

A FAA investigation found Velcro straps on her rented parachute were “In very poor condition…” and “Could very easily have been a contributing factor…”

“We thought how could somebody issue any diver a piece of equipment like this,” Jim McCoun said.

Not only that: Jennifer’s brother soon discovered the company’s safety claims were false.

“I found records of at least two other fatalities prior to Jen’s,” Phillip McCoun said. “They are under no obligation to report that to the USPA.”

“We don’t have regulatory authority,” said Jim Crouch with the United States Parachuting Association. He said reporting deaths is voluntary.

“We just tell consumers to do a local search in the media for action reports and to visit the drop zone,” he said.

Nonetheless, Crouch said, the sport is safer than ever.

Skydive Hollister’s owner Mako Igarashi agrees.

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Igarashi said. “Especially when it comes to the gear that people are using.”

Igarashi took over Skydive Hollister shortly before Jennifer’s death. He said he now buys state of the art gear every couple of months, and the new packs don’t have Velcro.

As for accidents, Igarashi said, “Basically a few injuries here and there, Unfortunately, we have had one person passed away.”

The drop zone’s 4th fatality: a jumper filming tandem students. A USPA report on the accident points out she had 150 jumps, only half the recommended amount.

“The drop zone did not follow our recommendation,” Crouch said.

Cameras are a dangerous distraction that skydivers take very seriously.

Last year, Gerardo Flores was heavily criticized for videotaping himself jumping at another drop zone, Skydive Monterey, without enough jumps.

He crash landed, but survived. A FAA report found his rented equipment, just like Jennifer’s, was worn beyond industry standards.

“There needs to be actual oversight. Having the self-regulating USPA that really focuses on marketing and lobbying instead of actually the monitoring the safety and doing something about it, that is not working,” Phillip McCoun said.

Gerardo Flores is now suing, while the McCoun’s sued and settled.

An Indiana lawmaker tried to pass a safety bill, but the U.S. Parachuting Association worked to defeat it. 

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