Superior skydivers' escape was 'a minor miracle'
The 11 survivors of a midair collision above Superior on Saturday evening took to the sky again Sunday, en route to New York City and a likely appearance this morning on national television.
They're set to appear on NBC's "Today" show and plan to tell the harrowing story of a skydiving outing gone wrong. They also may share footage of the events shot via helmet-mounted video cameras -- cameras that captured the frantic seconds as two small planes collided at 12,000 feet.
"For all 11 of us to walk away from something like that relatively unscathed is a minor miracle," said Dan Chandler, 31, one of the nine skydivers who -- along with two pilots -- survived as one plane broke apart and plummeted to the ground, and the other limped back to Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport with a damaged propeller.
Barry Sinex, another of the skydivers who planned to jump in formation Saturday, said he hopes to parlay the one-of-a-kind footage into money that can be used to resume the sport that has become his passion. For the moment, Skydive Superior is out of commission, with the collision having destroyed its Cessna 182 and damaged its only other aircraft, a Cessna 185.
Sinex, who also works as an instructor for Skydive Superior, estimates it will take about $150,000 to resume local skydiving operations, and he characterized the trip to New York as a fundraising effort. Sinex, 54, predicted that the unique firsthand footage of the accident will fetch a handsome price, but said Saturday that an agreement to air it had yet to be negotiated.
"The nice part is that no one was killed, or none of this would have been possible," he said.
'We were so lucky'
The two aircraft -- with four skydivers and a pilot in the lead plane, the Cessna 182, and five skydivers and a pilot in the trailing plane, the Cessna 185 -- collided above the southern part of Superior at about 6 p.m. Saturday. The trailing Cessna 185 apparently struck the lead aircraft, shearing off the Cessna 182's wings in a fiery collision.
"The chase plane must have got caught in the burble," said Mark Androsky, whose family owns Skydive Superior, describing the air turbulence behind a moving airplane.
Chandler characterized the turbulence as "an area of dead air that basically renders all your control surfaces useless."
Chandler, who was in the Cessna 185, said that all the occupants of the disabled lead plane, including the pilot, managed to exit within five to 10 seconds of the collision. Its occupants were making final preparations to jump when the crash occurred.
Sinex said he and Mike Robinson, another instructor, stayed with the Cessna 182 until their pilot had safely exited the plane before following him.
"We wanted to sweep up the rear just in case he had any trouble with his chute," Sinex explained.
Androsky said he insists his pilots be prepared.
"We make sure everyone wears a parachute whenever we go up," he said. "Some of the pilots don't like it, but that guy was sure glad to have one when this happened yesterday."
Androsky said the pilot of the Cessna 182 made a hard landing with his emergency parachute and was "pretty scratched up" but should make a full recovery. He said the pilot, who is from the Twin Cities and whose name has yet to be publicly disclosed, required about 25 stitches.
"We were so lucky. You can replace an airplane," Androsky said.
Blake Wedan, the 26-year-old pilot of the chase plane, managed to land his aircraft solo at the Superior airport despite a damaged prop; the five skydivers on his plane jumped to safety.
After jumping, the skydivers had to take evasive action to avoid being struck by falling wreckage and debris, said Robinson, 64, one of the four skydivers in the lead plane.
"I was screaming at people to watch out for the falling wings," Sinex recalled.
The fuselage of the Cessna 182 landed at the Head of the Lakes Fairgrounds along Tower Avenue; other pieces fell across the southern portion of Superior but did not appear to cause damage or injuries. The collision and its aftermath were heard and seen by numerous witnesses in the Twin Ports.
Robinson said both pilots were cooperating with investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board but would not be speaking to the media.
"I think they've been advised not to make any public statements at this time," he said.
Federal investigators were at the Superior fairgrounds on Sunday, inspecting the wreckage of the Cessna 182.
Robinson said Saturday's close call won't push him away from skydiving.
"It's like falling off a horse. You've got to get right back in the saddle," he said. "Everyone involved Saturday is very experienced and committed to the sport. They're not going to be deterred. They all responded well in a difficult situation. They did exactly what they needed to do."
Chandler, who has made 825 jumps, agreed, predicting that the local group of hardcore skydivers will stick together.
"I don't think this will stop any of us from jumping again," he said.