Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

Investigation of Skydive City deaths looks at gear, helmet cam

ZEPHYRHILLS — As they awaited autopsy results Sunday, Pasco County sheriff's deputies continued to pore over details surrounding the deaths of two Icelandic sky divers a day earlier.

Investigators have so far declined to rule the deaths accidental, although the manager of the sky dive facility that oversaw the jumps said the men's main parachutes had not deployed.

The bodies of sky dive student Andrimar Pordarson, 25, and instructor Orvar Arnarson, 40, were found close to each other about 7:30 p.m. Saturday off Yonkers Road, south of the Zephyr­hills Municipal Airport.

Results of the autopsy were expected today or Tuesday, and the investigation was to be completed this week, sheriff's spokeswoman Melanie Snow said.

The student also had a camera mounted in his helmet, Snow said, which may yield clues to what went wrong.

Storm clouds and wind gusts kept planes grounded Sunday at Skydive City, the site where the two had taken off the previous morning about 10:30 a.m.

They were part of group of Icelandic instructors and students visiting Florida on a sky diving vacation, Skydive City manager David T.K. Hayes said.

More students and other parachutists were expected this week as Skydive City partakes in Easter Boogie, an annual sky diving festival that draws enthusiasts from around the world.

The event was set to go on as planned despite the deaths, but some who had intended to jump now might be put off, Hayes said.

"If in your first training week one of your co-students gets killed, that rattles you," Hayes said. "They're certainly not jumping today, but that's because of the weather. Will they jump tomorrow? It's a personal decision. If you've been in the sport long enough, you know someone who's died."

• • •

The two deaths bring to at least 15 the number killed in sky-diving accidents since 1991 over Zephyrhills, long-known among parachuting enthusiasts for its flat terrain and favorable winds.

Nationally, 19 sky diving fatalities were reported last year, down from 25 in 2011, according to the U.S. Parachute Association.

Pasco County sheriff's investigators said Sunday that details of the two deaths remain unclear.

The men were part of a group of 22 people on the plane, including the pilot, Snow said.

Hayes said the men did not return for two hours, prompting worries among the group.

Zephyrhills police were called, but the case was not handed over to the Pasco Sheriff's Office — and its more extensive search resources — until about 3:30 p.m.

Deputies searched for four hours, fanning out across the airport and surrounding grounds and deploying a helicopter before finding the bodies in a wooded area. Deputies remained at the scene until 2 a.m., Snow said.

Besides reviewing video from the student's helmet camera, investigators also interviewed the pilot, other sky divers and people on the ground.

Authorities would not comment pending the investigation on whether the parachutes or other gear played a role.

Each was equipped with a main parachute and a backup designed to trigger at 700 feet if the main chute fails, Hayes said.

The backups deployed, but apparently did not pop open to inflate, he said.

Conditions at the time of the jump weren't a factor and didn't affect other sky divers, he said.

"The wind had absolutely nothing to do with it," Hayes said. "It was a failure-to-deploy-a-parachute-in-time accident."

Neither jumper used gear from Skydive City. Each packed his own parachutes, as required under federal regulations for foreigners sky diving in the United States.

Hayes said his team checked the gear of every jumper nonetheless. The Icelanders' gear met safety requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.

Sky diving is not an industry that carries liability insurance. Jumpers do so at their own risk, and the industry remains largely unregulated except for the pilots and aircraft. Jumpers sign waivers, assuming risk.

The FAA says that sky diving accidents fall under its investigative purview when a violation of federal regulations has occurred. Barring a violation, sky diving accidents are investigated by local authorities.

"The entire sky diving community is interested because a student died," said Hayes, who spent much of Sunday on the phone dealing with media requests, including from Iceland. "Students are never supposed to die."

Snow said investigators plan to contact the FAA today for assistance.

"The FAA will get involved because they will have to do an assessment of the equipment and the plane to make sure it's in compliance," she said. "That has not taken place yet, but we will be in contact with the FAA."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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