Malfunction kills veteran skydiver in Brazoria County
Austin man dies in Brazoria County when parachute's brake line snaps
An experienced skydiver died Saturday in Brazoria County after a parachute malfunction caused him to lose control.
Miguel "Woody" Carrasco, 36, is the eighth death at Skydive Spaceland. The United States Parachute Association reports 19 skydivers died out of 3.1 million jumps last year.
Carrasco, who has about a decade of experience, was practicing with a group of 16 jumpers on the 20-way meet, an in-air performing routine planned for a friendly competition the next weekend, said Lee McMillian, the company's attorney, a longtime skydiver and friend of Carrasco.
About 3:30 p.m., the group neared the end of its fourth run that day and separated in the air.
McMillian said Carrasco opened his main chute, but one of two brake lines broke. The lines, used to steer and control descent speeds, are common wear points that McMillian said many skydivers check before every jump.
After losing the brake line, he said, Carrasco entered a downward spiral and eventually jettisoned the main chute. No one knows why he did not open his reserve chute.
The Brazoria County Sheriff's Office, which is investigating the incident, said McMillian's description matched what they learned from witnesses.
"We don't know how much altitude he had left to pull the reserve," McMillian said. "Reserve can open pretty quickly. It can open in a second and half."
In a news release, General Manager Jason Hyder noted Carrasco "was not equipped with optional emergency devices that would have activated his reserve parachute automatically."
Hyder later told the Houston Chronicle that Carrasco, like many experienced jumpers, operates his own parachute and holds a license to inspect it.
Improved each time
Carrasco, originally from El Paso, lived in Austin with his wife and daughter, working as an IBM engineer.
McMillian said Carrasco quickly made friends in the tight-knit group of Texas jumpers because he handled criticism well and always smiled, qualities that also made people like having him on their teams, even if he was not the strongest jumper.
"It just made him someone wonderful to jump with," McMillian said. "People who jump out of airplanes are typically Type-A personalities and have huge egos. He's a guy that if you told him he did something wrong and should do it different next time, he'd say OK and would. He improved on every jump he went on."
For regular skydivers like Carrasco and McMillian, that can be hundreds of jumps a year.
Serious competition teams might do as many as 10 jumps in a single day, meeting for a couple of long weekends for months before an event. That's on top of time practicing maneuvers in vertical wind tunnels.
A 2012 post on the company's Facebook page included a video filmed by Carrasco as 24 jumpers completed a maneuver that included nine hangers, pilots who "stand up" while attached to the belly down group.
Carrasco yells and cheers as the routine is completed.
McMillian said Carrasco was a regular at many of the state's friendly competitions and competed on a four-way team in the National Skydiving League's annual championships.
"It is one of the reasons it's such a sad occurrence," McMillian said of Carrasco not opening his reserve chute. "It's just a Skydiving 101 thing."
This is not the first time a skydiver has died at Skydive Spaceland, Texas' biggest skydiving company with roots connected to state competitions founded in the 1970s.
Suit in 2008 death
Carrasco's is the eighth fatality since the company opened in 1998. According to the company, seven of the deceased jumpers were experienced and the eighth was a 2008 accident involving a student on his ninth jump, his sixth not in tandem with an instructor.
The family of Rex Williams, 59 from Tacoma, Wash., filed an injury lawsuit in 2008 arguing the instructor should have intervened to save Williams, but the day after opening arguments in 2012, the case was settled on undisclosed terms.
Skydive Spaceland stood by its safety record, noting it had trained more than 100,000 students, and under the circumstances the instructor had done everything right. It was the student's responsibility to open his chute, officials said.
An accident in 2007 at the Skydive Spaceland facility killed employee Scott Bell, 35, when his parachute malfunctioned. Another two divers died in 2011, when Scott James, 27, of Houston, and Arthur Bill, 63, of Spring, collided and tangled their parachutes.
Other divers perished attempting trick landing maneuvers called "canopy swoops." In swooping competitions, pilots steer through obstacles near the ground or skim along water before landing.
The company is one of nine drop zones in Texas affiliated with the United States Parachute Association, which sets standards for safety and training.
McMillian defended the company's history and the sport at-large.
"It's really fun," he said. "It's terrifying. But terrifying is not always bad."
He said certified skydivers must be responsible for their own gear and actions.
Sometimes, he said, equipment just doesn't work as planned.