Entangled parachute deaths a 'tragic accident'

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The Independent Online

The deaths of two people killed after their parachutes became entangled in a routine jump was a "tragic accident", a coroner ruled today.

Brian Laithwaite, 65, and Emma Bramley, 31, had just taken part in a "six-way skydive" when Ms Bramley's parachute hit Mr Laithwaite's feet and became tangled around his body.

The pair could not free themselves and plummeted to the ground at Langar Airfield in Nottinghamshire on June 4 where they died instantly.

At an inquest at Nottingham Coroner's Court today, coroner Nigel Chapman said the incident was a "tragic accident" and recorded verdicts of accidental death.

Parachutist Gary Davidson told the inquest he had been taking part in a six-way skydive with Mr Laithwaite, from Wigan, Lancashire, and Ms Bramley, from Top Valley, Nottingham.

He said: "A six-way skydive is where six people jump out as a collective group and get together at a certain point and perform certain formations."

He said the group, led by Mr Laithwaite, had come together and then were separating to move into clear airspace to deploy their parachutes at around 4,500-5,000ft.

Mr Davidson opened his own parachute then noticed the problem with Mr Laithwaite and Ms Bramley.

"Emma's (parachute) was the lower of the two but they were heading towards the same point in the sky," he said.

"A few seconds later Emma's wing tip contacted Brian's foot."

He said her parachute then wound itself round Mr Laithwaite as it span violently.

"Some time later amongst all the sort of whirling and confusion, I saw a reserve parachute deploy.

"Due to the spinning, it also became entangled with the other parachute."

He said it seemed like Mr Laithwaite was trying to communicate with Ms Bramley but was not sure if she could hear.

"I believe his intention was to attempt to land them with his parachute."

But he said around 800ft from the ground the parachute seemed to pick up speed and then hit the ground.

The inquest heard a doctor was at the airfield and he and other onlookers rushed to the pair, but both were dead.

Post-mortem examinations gave the cause of death as multiple injuries.

David Hickling, managing director of the parachute school at Langar, and drop zone controller on the day, said a total of 14 people jumped in the same jump - with the six as a separate group.

He said he was watching them jump from the plane using binoculars.

"I observed that there was a problem, I immediately knew it was Brian's parachute," he told the court.

"I wasn't aware who had entangled with the lower part of Brian's body.

"Brian's parachute was open and appeared to be flying as normal as it could have done with the extra weight on it.

"Brian was not spinning himself, the person underneath was spinning."

He said around 200ft above the ground Mr Laithwaite's parachute appeared to "dive towards the ground".

Mr Hickling said he believed Mr Laithwaite's parachute had deployed as a result of the collision, not because he had intentionally meant it to.

Richard Wheatley, chief instructor at Langar, was debriefing someone when the accident happened.

He said he went outside to see the two parachutes entangled, and the whole thing spinning, then saw them plummet to the ground.

John Hitchen, chairman of safety and training at the British Parachute Association, said both Mr Laithwaite and Ms Bramley were experienced parachutists - the former with 1,800 jumps and the latter with more than 250.

He said: "Shortly after opening, their parachutes collided.

"We believe that Emma's parachute actually collided with Brian's legs, wrapped around him and then this major entanglement ensued.

"We feel that Brian's reserve was opened by the entanglement, not by his actions intentionally."

He said during investigations, more than two people tried to untangle the parachutes, adding: "I personally have never seen a parachute or parachutes entangled to that extent.

"It was certainly a major entanglement."

He told the inquest it appeared when Mr Laithwaite's reserve parachute deployed, it went straight through Ms Bramley's chute and lines, making the entanglement even worse.

The inquest heard Mr Laithwaite's visor was up, suggesting he might have been trying to communicate with Ms Bramley, but she may not have heard as hers was down and she may have been disorientated by the spinning.

He said it was possible as their canopies opened they inadvertently turned towards each other, leading to the collision.

Mr Hitchen said: "Initially Brian's parachute appeared to be flying relatively well and if it had remained so it is possible the landing may have been survivable.

"However between 100-200ft Brian's main parachute appeared to dive towards the ground, resulting in a significant increase in descent rate, causing them to impact on the ground at high speed.

"This is likely to have been caused by the other parachute restricting flying characteristics."

He said the BPA had issued posters to all parachute clubs reiterating the importance of good separation before deploying.

Coroner Dr Nigel Chapman said: "This is a tragic accident and I return verdicts of accidental death into both Brian and Emma."

After the hearing, Ms Bramley's mother, Annette Bramley, said: "Emma was a beautiful lady and will be greatly missed."