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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 7, 2006

Skydiving duo killed after landing in sea

By David Waite and Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writers

Erich Mueller

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Yesterday's fatal skydiving accident was the second for Skydive Hawaii in the past year and the sixth on O'ahu since 1996.

  • Feb. 14, 2005, William T. "Bill" Parsons, 51, slammed into the ground while making a high-speed turn during his landing at Dillingham Airfield. An experienced skydiver, Parsons had gone jumping with Pacific Skydiving Center. He died March 1 from his injuries.

  • Feb. 6, 2005, Pearl Harbor sailor Jeremy Barrett, 24, died when his parachute malfunctioned during a jump over Dillingham Airfield with Skydive Hawaii. Barrett got into trouble when he deployed his main chute too low and one of the many suspension lines wrapped over the top of the parachute.

  • Dec. 22, 2002, Margaret Jean Thomas, 18, of Nebraska, was killed along with her instructor, Greg Hunter, 44, during a tandem jump with a company called Drop Zone. Their reserve parachute broke off as the pair fell from 9,000 feet.

  • April 13, 1998, Patrick de Gayardon, a skydiving stunt performer and a part-owner of Pacific International Skydiving Center, was killed in a banana field near Dillingham Airfield when his main and backup chutes became tangled.

  • Oct. 5, 1996, a 26-year-old Mililani man with more than 1,000 previous jumps died when he came in low and fast before landing hard at the landing zone at Dillingham Airfield, possibly miscalculating his altitude before opening his parachute.

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    Rescuers trying to reach the fallen skydivers on the reef had to struggle with rough conditions about 300 yards from shore.

    News 8 photos

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    A rescue net carries one of the skydivers, unidentified, after pulling the person from the reef.

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    A master parachutist with more than 10,000 jumps to his credit and a novice skydiving student from Japan both died yesterday after their tandem parachute overshot a landing zone at Dillingham Airfield and came down about 300 yards off shore.

    Officials from Skydive Hawaii identified the instructor as Erich "Max" Mueller, 69, and the student as Saori Takahashi, 33, of Hokkaido.

    Company president Frank Hinshaw said Takahashi's boyfriend took a tandem jump from the same flight with a different instructor. They landed safely in a designated zone at the Waialua end of the runway.

    Hinshaw said there was no indication that Mueller and his student were in trouble until other instructors and company employees saw the two overshoot the landing area and drift over the ocean.

    "This has been a devastating day for our skydiving family and the community in general," Hinshaw said about an hour after the 10 a.m. incident. He described Mueller as "well liked, well-respected and loved by just about everybody who knew him."

    He said he had no idea what might have caused the accident. He estimated the wind yesterday morning was blowing about 10 mph with just a few clouds and bright sun "prime skydiving conditions," he said.

    Mueller, with Takahashi strapped in the tandem harness with her back toward his chest, probably would have left the plane at an elevation of 10,000 to 14,000 feet.

    The two were aboard the second skydiving flight of the day.

    In February, a 24-year-old sailor died while skydiving with Skydive Hawaii. Advertiser archives show the company had another fatal accident in 1991.

    Yesterday, Bodo Van Der Leeden, captain for the city's North Shore lifeguards, said area lifeguards went to the site after Honolulu Fire Department officials asked for help.

    He said several lifeguards raced there from Hale'iwa on personal watercraft, a trip he estimated would have taken about 10 minutes.

    Rescuers estimated that the two skydivers landed in water that was waist deep three to five feet.

    "But the conditions out there were really, really rough, very treacherous, with the waves breaking over the reef," Van Der Leeden said.

    He said the lifeguards used watercraft to shuttle fire department rescuers out to where the skydivers went into the water.

    Fire Capt. Kenison Tejada said when fire and rescue crews arrived they were met by workers from the skydiving company who sprinted across Farrington Highway and swam out to helped the downed parachutists.

    "There were about six civilians who were saying the two victims were trapped under water," Tejada said. "They were asking for knives to cut them loose."

    Several fire department rescue workers with knives paddled out to the victims and worked with the lifeguards and company workers to free the pair.

    "Everybody worked together as best they could," he said. "But both of the victims were tangled up in the parachute and all of the cords."

    By the time they were freed, rescue workers estimated the two had been under water for at least 15 minutes and as many as 30.

    "The rescue was tough for everybody involved given the waves and the really sharp coral."

    He said the call for help came in at 10:01 a.m. and that the first rescue workers arrived 10 minutes later. The two skydivers were taken to Wahiawa General Hospital, where Mueller was pronounced dead soon afterward and Takahashi hours later.

    An attempt to reach Takahashi's boyfriend was unsuccessful.

    Skydive Hawaii attorney Philip Nerney described Mueller as a top-notch skydiver who was born in East Germany and who was a retired German military officer.

    Hinshaw said he believed Mueller had served in both the German air force and army.

    Although he was 69 years old, he was in excellent physical condition, Hinshaw said.

    "He certainly had a passion for skydiving," he said.

    Hinshaw said he last went skydiving several years ago on a trip to Germany with Mueller.

    For eight years, Mueller shuttled back and forth between Hawai'i and Germany but became "a pretty much full-time resident" here two years ago, he said.

    He said Mueller lived at the Skydive Hawaii office at Dillingham Airfield. Hinshaw said Mueller was divorced and has an adult daughter.

    For the past eight years, Mueller was a regular patron of Coffee Gallery in Hale'iwa, said owner Rene Dominguez.

    The German would spend his winters skydiving in Hawai'i, staying mostly on the North Shore.

    "He just liked to follow the sun," Dominguez said. "Apparently, he didn't need to work."

    It wasn't uncommon for Mueller to stop by the coffee shop in the morning and later in the afternoon, Dominguez said. He'd start the day with coffee and end it with fruit and yogurt topped with granola.

    Always friendly, if Mueller spotted a German tourist, he'd strike up a conversation.

    "There are a lot of people out here who are upset by this," Dominguez said. "Max was well-known and well-liked."

    Dominguez called the accident "bad luck."

    "It is a dangerous business, I guess," he said. "These things happen every so many months. Something goes wrong unexpectedly. But Max was doing what he wanted to do."

    Hinshaw said Skydive Hawaii books an average of 1,000 to 1,200 tandem jumps per month.

    He said he expects the Ho-nolulu Police Department and Federal Aviation Administration to conduct separate investigations into yesterday's accident.

    The FAA sent an investigator with expertise in parachute rigging to the accident scene yesterday, but the cause of the mishap has yet to be determined, said Mike Fergus, a spokesman for the FAA's Seattle office.

    "I was told that they did have a video on the jumper and obviously the investigators will look at this if the camera survived," Fergus said.

    Fergus said tandem jumping is heavily regulated by the FAA.

    "There are a lot of training and certificates that have to be issued if you are going to be doing this," Fergus said. "We will obviously look at that to see if that was adhered to."

    Among the regulations: One of the jumpers must be the "parachutist in command" and have three years' experience, have completed a minimum of 500 freefall jumps and holds a master parachute license issued by an organization recognized by the FAA.

    Also, the "passenger parachutist" is required to receive a safety briefing that includes, among other things, landing approaches and landings.

    And the main parachute must be equipped with a single-point release system.

    The lengthy list is grounded in heavy responsibility.

    "There is a school or an organization taking up an individual," said Allen Kenitzer, another FAA spokesman in Seattle. "That person puts their life in the school's hands. This is a situation where you are trusting an organization with a jump."

    After the accident yesterday, Skydive Hawaii closed but planned to resume jumps today.

    In the small community of skydivers, that's not unusual.

    No one would stop jumping simply because of a death, no matter how sad that was, said Guy Banal, president and owner of Pacific Skydiving Center.

    "It is not a sad thing well, it is sad, but for the community, it is a part of the sport," said Banal, who began parachuting in 1969 and had a few close calls himself.

    When a fellow skydiver dies, his friends often have a memorial jump, holding hands in formation high above the ground, but leaving a gap where he might be, Banal said.

    Then they have a party.

    "We try not to cry too much about it," he said, "because the guy left doing what he liked."

    Reach David Waite at dwaite@honoluluadvertiser.com and Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.