The man who fell to earth and lived to tell the tale

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The Independent Online
A Briton had a "miracle" escape when he survived a terrifying 5,000ft plunge to the ground after his parachute failed to open during a free fall jump.

Gareth Griffiths, 27, who works as a management consultant in London, was holidaying with friends in Florida when a routine tandem sky-dive turned to tragedy.

Eyewitness reports suggested that he had been saved by the heroic actions of his instructor, American Michael Costello, 42, who twisted in mid-air to take the brunt of the blow as the pair struck the ground.

Mr Costello died in the accident, near Florida's Umatilla airport 35 miles north of Orlando, but Mr Griffiths' condition was described as "encouraging" by the Orlando Regional Medical Centre where he is recovering from a fractured spine and injuries to the chest and abdomen.

Joe Brown, a spokesman for the hospital, said: "He is in a serious but stable condition. He underwent seven hours of surgery to repair damage to his lower back but is expected to fully recover."

Michael Tighe was amongst a group of four friends of Mr Griffiths who witnessed the drama on Sunday afternoon. The party had taken a two-week break in America and had organised a 10-day parachuting course to prepare themselves for a US licence.

"The instructor saved Gareth's life," said Mr Tighe. "We have spoken to Gareth in hospital, where he is in a lot of pain."

Umatilla's police chief, Doug Foster, said: "He's one lucky Brit. This was a miracle, no doubt about it ... It's just incredible, but the trainer seems to have absorbed the impact."

Wilma Godwin, who owns the Paragators Sport Parachute Centre that organised the trip, paid tribute to Mr Costello's bravery. "He saved the young man's life, and he knew what he was doing," she said.

She added that Mr Costello, who had 18 years parachuting experience, had made more than 7,500 jumps, including some as a stunt man in the Hollywood film Drop Zone.

Mr Griffiths' parents, David and Fay of Bridgend, South Wales, said: "It's just a miracle he is not dead. It was a terrible shock. We are still terribly worried about what the effect of his injuries could be. But I thank God somehow he is alive."

Mr Griffiths, a bachelor, who works for management advisers Andersen Consulting, is a keen sportsmen and no stranger to adventure sports, such as white water rafting.

Parachuting and free fall jumping are an increasingly popular pursuit, particularly in the United States, and enthusiasts are passionate about their sport.

Tye Boughen is one such fanatic. Curiosity over a newspaper advertisement 15 years ago developed into a passion and Mr Boughen has now completed more than 3,250 jumps of different kinds, most commonly the tandem sky- dive, the type in which Mr Griffiths was injured.

"Free fall is the favourite jump of any parachutist. It is where the exhilaration of the sport is at its greatest. Most people would imagine that falling to earth at 120mph is terrifying but that is not the case," he said.

"In fact it is like floating on a cushion of air. A good parachutist in free fall can be a gymnast, a surf-boarder or an arrow, it all depends upon training and choice. Each jump is different and requires skill and concentration.

"Of course everyone is scared before their first jump, even experienced parachutists are anxious before big jumps. I've been fortunate and have never been injured but I know plenty of people who have sprained ankles, suffered bumps and bruises and injured legs. The thing is that their passion picks them up and drives them on to continue."

Tandem sky-diving, the type of jump that Mr Griffiths embarked upon, involves the novice being strapped to the instructor. The pair then free fall for the first part of the descent, normally about 30 seconds, and then release the parachute to glide to earth. The jumps cost between pounds 80- pounds 100 but insurance for accident is rarely included within the terms of holiday policies.

John Hitchen, national coach and safety officer from the British Parachute Association (BPA), said: "This is an unusual case. Usually in tandem jumping accidents both or neither would die. However, I can think of scenarios where the instructor could be turned round and hit the ground first and the novice's fall would therefore be cushioned."

Britain has about 30 parachuting clubs and more than 250,000 jumps are made each year of which about 10,000 are tandem sky-dives. According to the BPA there have been three fatalities in the last three years in the UK and during the worst year on record five people lost their lives to the sport. In America, experts calculate that over 100,000 tandem jumps are made annually.