Fire, police rescue two skydivers stranded in a tree

Published 12:10 am Sunday, April 15, 2018

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — Two skydivers are thanking their lucky stars after a parachute malfunction Saturday evening left them hanging nearly 40 feet off the ground.

I’m grateful to God to be alive — we really shouldn’t be,” skydiver Cassie Ellis said.

Ellis and friend Sheryl Shepherd drove down to Rowan County from Bluefield, West Virginia, to knock an item off their bucket list. Rowan County is one of only two locations within driving distance that offers tandem skydiving experiences — the other being in Huntington, W.Va. But the two friends decided to come down to North Carolina.

Ellis said she’d always wanted to try skydiving, and did research beforehand that said tandem diving — where the diver is harnessed to a trained instructor — is statistically safer than driving.

“I’d wanted to do it forever,” she said of the experience.

But when Ellis and her instructor, Derek Abernathy, leapt from the plane over the Rowan County Airport, something went wrong. From her understanding, the primary parachute malfunctioned, and when the backup chute kicked in, something else went wrong with the lines. Before she knew it, she and Abernathy were racing towards the ground.

“Basically we started spinning out of control and falling out of control, and we crash landed in the woods,” she said.

The pair were caught on a tree off a sewer right-of-way just off Cedar Springs Road, and hung for what Ellis said felt like hours. She recalled her legs going numb from the harness. But Abernathy talked her through it, and helped to keep her from panicking.

“He was so calm that I was able to be calm,” she said.

Salisbury Fire Department Deputy Chief David Morris said that police, fire and emergency personnel received the call at approximately 7:58 p.m. and established command by 8:10 p.m. In the past 10 or 15 years, Morris said he can only recall a few similar calls — but they still train for them.

“We practice for these type of events so that when we have to deal with events like this and perform a rescue like this we can almost do it flawlessly,” he said.

Saturday night, that training paid off. Emergency responders muscled equipment almost a quarter of a mile back along the grassy right-of-way and began working to get Ellis and Abernathy down. They used a 35-foot ladder to scale the tree and check on both divers, and then set up a hoist to lift and lower them out of the tree.

“They actually had to lift them up and then lower them back down,” Morris said.

As each diver reached the earth, cheers went up from family and friends. Shepherd was on scene with her own diving instructor. Her dive, she said, went off without a hitch. But she as thankful for the swift rescue of her friend.

“The crew, the whole team down there were incredible,” she said.

Both Abernathy and Ellis escaped with a few minor scratches, and were able to leave the scene independently. Ellis said that she won’t be skydiving again.

“I’m an adrenaline junkie, but this was too much adrenaline for me,” she said.

And in the future, she plans to give her bucket list some serious editing.

“I’m going to try not coming so close to kicking the bucket again,” she said.

Salisbury, Locke and Woodleaf fire departments responded, along with Rowan County EMS, Rowan County Rescue and the Salisbury Police Department.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.