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Friday, May 27, 2011

Lew Injured at Box

Upsetting news from the paragliding community in Tucson.

There is a lot of history that makes the news of Lew's accident at Box even more upsetting. I wrote the following accident report 13 years ago:

On Sunday, March 1, 1998, several Tucson area paraglider pilots gathered at Box Canyon for an evening flight. The gathering included pilots Fred Leonard, Lew Smith, Red Walsh, Ian Stine, Ed Hileman, Buddy Crill, Scott Horton, Leigh Anne Gallagher, Arjan Ala, Kep Taiz, and Larry Mayer. Larry's wife Rose offered her services as chauffer.

Box Canyon is a horseshoe of ridges with the open end facing west. The inside, north-facing ridge of the south leg of the horseshoe is very steep and rocky and is consistently soarable in a north or northwest wind. There is a landing zone (LZ) at the mouth of the horseshoe where most pilots park their cars.

Several pilots hoofed the one and a half hour hike from the LZ up to launch with their paragliders. Several others four wheeled the washed out dirt roads to the bowl of the horseshoe and lugged their equipment up the 30-minute trail to launch. Rose stayed with the vehicle in the bowl of the horseshoe. She had a cellular phone and a modified two-meter FM radio.

Most pilots arrived at launch between four and five PM. Conditions were ideal for the recreational pilots. The wind direction was due north and the velocity was sufficient to ridge soar, but not so strong as to make for complicated or difficult launching. The gust factor was minimal.

Fred was the first pilot off and he enjoyed a 30-minute ridge soaring flight all by himself as the rest of the pilots were setting up. About the time Buddy launched, Fred headed to the LZ and landed. Scott and Arjan followed next, and the ridge slowly started to fill up. Before too long Ian, Kep, and Red were in the air. Conditions were smooth and ideal and everyone was anticipating a bird's eye view of a spectacular Arizona sunset.

At this point one pilot was in the LZ, six pilots were in the air, four pilots were on launch, and Rose was with the vehicle behind launch. The lift was not abundantly strong but it was certainly not necessary to scratch. However, most pilots were working the strongest areas of lift and traffic in those areas was a bit congested. Several of the pilots commented at the end of the day that they were intimidated by the traffic they observed in those areas and were uncomfortable with the prospect of flying in that situation.

Then the accident happened.

At approximately 5:30 PM, Red was ridge soaring his Edel Super Space in a westerly direction at a higher altitude (maybe 100 feet) than Arjan, who was ridge soaring a Nova Axon in an easterly direction. Red was flying into the sun, but none of the other pilots recall glare being a problem. As the two pilots approached each other, Red encountered sink and his altitude advantage over Arjan was diminishing.

Red initiated a right-hand turn away from the ridge, which Ian suspects was in an attempt to avoid Arjan. At the same time, Arjan initiated an aggressive left hand turn away from the ridge. Ian believes that Arjan was starting a 180-degree turn to head back west down the ridge. Ian also believes that Arjan's attention was focused to the north, the direction he was turning towards, and that he was unaware of Red's proximity.

Red must have observed Arjan's heading change and foreseen a collision because Ian saw Red abandon the right hand turn away from the ridge and initiate a left hand turn back into the ridge. Time and distance between the two were very short.

As the new trajectories manifested themselves, Red found that he and Arjan's canopy were going to try and occupy the same space at the same time. Red screamed. In a last ditch effort to avoid collision, Ian saw Red reach up and grab the top of his risers and pull his body up, rolling his feet up over his head as though he was going to do a back flip, trying to get his body out of the way of Arjan's canopy.

Red's body and Arjan's canopy collided. Ian says that Red's body went right into Arjan's leading edge. Arjan's canopy wrapped around Red's body and lost all semblance of an airfoil. Scott remembers seeing Arjan's canopy, a brilliant wadded purple ribbon, horizontally laid across the backdrop of the brown and green ridge. Red's canopy also became distorted. The two pilots and their canopies plummeted at a shocking velocity.

Arjan was roughly 50 feet over the summit of the ridge when the collision occurred. He impacted the ridge approximately 150 feet east of launch and 40 or 50 feet below the summit. Red impacted the ridge 20 feet above Arjan. The area of impact was rocky with sparsely scattered scrubby bushes.

Arjan was wearing a very lightweight plastic helmet that resembled a kayaking helmet. Arjan's harness did not have a spine protector. Red wore a solid, probably fiberglass, Bell style helmet and his harness was equipped with a spine protector.

The four pilots on launch ran to the victims. Arjan was found unconscious on his back, bleeding from the nose, his shoulders propped up by a scrubby bush, his legs crossed at the ankles, and his head sagging to the side in an unnatural way. Red was found on his side, lucid, complaining of lower back pain and loss of feeling in one leg.

Red appeared to be stable. Arjan however was completely unresponsive. He appeared to be breathing although respiration was spastic and jerky. Spine and neck injury seemed apparent, so the four rescuers left Arjan where he lay.

At this point the two heroes of the day emerged. Lew Smith did an outstanding job of taking charge and directing the rescue team and Rose back at the vehicle called 911 on the cellular phone and coordinated with the authorities. Lew directed Rose to get two MediVac helicopters in route and even had radio frequencies, GPS coordinates, road names, and quadrangle map numbers for Rose to relay to the authorities.

Leigh Anne was monitoring Arjan and noticed that he had stopped breathing. Lew radioed to Rose to get a doctor on the line to ask if they should move Arjan to begin CPR, even though back injury seemed evident. Scott radioed to Lew that if breathing had stopped, mouth-to-mouth must be started. Lew, Leigh Anne, and Larry moved Arjan as gently as possible and began CPR. Scott top landed and joined the CPR efforts.

CPR was administered for what felt like hours, although the helicopters and paramedics arrived in probably under a half an hour. Ed was in communication with the helicopter pilots via radio and vectored them in for backside hill top landings.

The paramedics connected an EKG to Arjan while CPR continued. When they were ready, the EMTs directed "Stop CPR!" The EMTs found no electrical activity from Arjan's heart and explained that there was nothing they could do. "Your friend is gone."

Everyone was overcome with emotion and sobbed uncontrollably for a few minutes but regrouped quickly because Red had to be loaded on a spine board and carried to the helicopter. Red had apparent spinal injury and the process of removing his harness and rolling him onto the spine board took a long time. By the time he was loaded and the helicopter left, the spectacular Arizona sunset had come and gone, and the five pilots remaining on launch were tired, cold, and emotionally drained.

Arjan's body was loaded on the second helicopter in the dark and the five pilots began the hike down with their paragliders on their backs.

Everyone regrouped in the LZ, shared their observations, and agreed to meet at the hospital that Red was taken to.

Arjan's father was contacted and informed of the tragedy.

The Pima County Sheriff's department interviewed everyone at the hospital and seemed to have a reasonable understanding of what had happened, although their press releases indicated it was a hang gliding accident.

Red did in fact have a spinal injury and had back surgery Monday afternoon, March 2, 1998. The doctors seem to think Red will have a near full recovery after extensive rehabilitation and physical therapy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Will you please send an email about Lew's accident. Is he okay?Mom