Friends say skydiving instructor was experienced
By Walter Wright
Advertiser Staff Writer
The skydiving instructor who plummeted to his death in tandem with an 18-year-old student in Mokule'ia Sunday was an experienced jumper in a sport that has never seen a tandem death in Hawai'i in more than 100,000 jumps, friends and colleagues in the state's small, tight-knit community of parachutists said yesterday.
Greg Hunter started working as a tandem parachute instructor in Perris Valley, Calif., in 1989.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Hunter later invented an assortment of camera gear for jump videos, and jumped with movie stars such as Patrick Swayze.
But Hunter's skills and the relative safety of tandem skydiving made even deeper the mystery of how the main and reserve chutes in his harness failed to deploy as he and 18-year-old Margaret Jean Thomas of Papillion, Neb., fell 9,000 feet to their death Sunday afternoon.
Thomas had received the jump as a Christmas gift, according to police. She and her infant son were visiting a relative here, police said. The gift fulfilled one of the things in life she dreamed of doing, the police report noted.
Federal Aviation Administration investigators were examining whether the chutes became entangled with one another or some other gear, but the cause of the accident remained unclear yesterday.
One of Hunter's students, Fred Alvarez of Honolulu, was one of the last to see him alive and the first to see him after the fall.
Alvarez had taken some of the Drop Zone skydiving customers out to the company's Cessna 402 airplane on Sunday, wished his friend and teacher a good skydive, and said, "See you when you get back down."
An information systems consultant for the Department of Defense, Alvarez, 33, said he thought he noticed one of the several tandem pairs coming from the Cessna 9,000 feet up falling free momentarily, but couldn't spot them when he looked back a few seconds later.
"We could see the jumpers and what appeared to be a 'cut away,' " releasing the main chute from the harness so that the reserve chute can then be deployed, Alvarez said.
"But then I was focusing on the other skydivers and then that one wasn't there.
"It wasn't until the tower called and asked if there was a cut away" that anyone realized something was wrong, Alvarez said.
"Then people were saying, 'Hey, it looked like this one person went down and didn't open up,' and everybody was yelling, 'Who was missing?' and his name came out, and myself and a friend went to the car."
If jumpers don't land in the drop zone at Dillingham Field, they usually head for alternate landing areas like the polo field or the beach, Alvarez said.
He and a friend drove down Farrington Highway looking for some sign of the jumpers, then spotted a fire engine down Mahina'ai Street and made a sharp left.
"I said, 'Is this the skydivers?' and they said yes and we parked and ran in and there they were," Alvarez said.
He said he was able to recognize and identify Hunter where he lay on the ground with Thomas in the yard of a Mokule'ia estate.
Yesterday, Alvarez wanted people to know that "Greg was a very good skydiver, a professional, very calm and collected, very intelligent, very sharp."
Earlier Sunday, when Alvarez was making his own second jump of the day, he said, Hunter had cautioned him: "Fred, make sure you check your gear and have someone else check your gear, and when you are checked out look to see that your friends are checked out."
That, Alvarez said, "was the kind of person he was."
Alvarez said he wanted to talk about Hunter because he knew the skydiving community was tight-lipped about accidents and people might not know how professional his friend and teacher was.
"I don't want people to think there was anything wrong with him," Alvarez said. "Another reporter kind of ticked me off with her questions, asking, 'Did he use drugs or alcohol?' This was a guy of good character, very principled."
Alvarez said he will continue to jump. "This was a tragedy, but if a person drowns, do you stop going swimming? There is a higher probability of dying in a car crash. Tandem jumping is very safe, and it is totally mind-boggling that this happened."
The first fatal tandem jump accident in Hawai'i history has hit the skydiving community hard, said Clarence Lopez of Sky Dive Hawaii, the largest and oldest of three skydiving companies on Dillingham Field, serving about 6,000 customers a year.
"Everybody is all sad; they are bummed out, but everybody handles it in a different way," Lopez said. "The best way to handle it is to cry and get it out of your system and the more you cry and the sooner you cry the sooner you will get it out."
Skydiving business will slow down briefly, Lopez said, but will go back to normal as soon as new visitors who haven't read of the accident arrive here.
"People get scared if there is a shark attack in Waikiki, but then new tourists come in and it isn't in the newspapers and they will go back into the water," he said.
"Could we have gone forever without an accident? Maybe it was inevitable, and maybe if we started playing chess instead of jumping out of airplanes it might ... help," Lopez said.
"But I can tell you it is a lot safer than it has ever been, and something like this is so rare."
Lopez said when things settle down, the skydivers of Dillingham Field will take time to say goodbye to one of their own.
"Skydivers usually will probably have a party and at the party everyone will say we miss him and we love him, and then we will probably go up and do a skydive for him, at sunset," he said.
Advertiser staff writer Rod Ohira contributed to this report. Reach Walter Wright at email@example.com or 525-8054.