With parachutes tangled, Golden Knights make split-second decision to save life
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Everything was wrong.
Two members of the Golden Knights parachute team were tangled together, plummeting to Earth at 65 mph with little chance of survival.
One of them, Sgt. David Echeverry, was being strangled by a parachute cord. He knew that he and his teammate, Staff Sgt. Christopher Clark, couldn't survive if they remained entwined. So in his last moments of consciousness, he pulled his release cord, hoping to give his partner a chance.
His last thoughts, he said, were of his wife, Rachel, and his two children - 3-year-old Jacob and 16-month-old Elijah.
A few seconds later, when Echeverry thought he should have been dead, he came to - and found himself dangling from Clark, who held onto Echeverry's lines with all of his strength.
"I realized I was still alive and I was hanging from Chris," Echeverry said Tuesday, months after both soldiers risked their lives during a daring mid-air rescue.
"I had him and I wasn't letting go," recalled Clark, who collapsed with exhaustion after the two landed.
Today, both Golden Knights were honored by the Army for risking their own lives while saving each other.
They each received a Soldier's Medal, the highest Army award for valor outside of combat, in a ceremony at Fort Bragg that included remarks by Karl F. Schneider, acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
Lt. Col. Jose E. Melendez, commander of the U.S. Army Parachute Team better known as the Golden Knights, said he witnessed the heroic actions and said he was proud to take part in the ceremony.
"A lot of people talk about what they would do in a dangerous situation," Melendez said. "But you don't know."
"They've been there, done that," he added.
Schneider said the two soldiers were good examples of the Army's values.
He urged the several dozen soldiers and others in attendence to emulate the pair in their day to day lives.
Schneider said he wasn't asking anyone to perform a mid-air rescue, but instead wanted them to look out for their fellow service members by stopping bullying when they see it or serving or by stopping others from driving drunk.
The Feb. 15 jump at Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida began like any other, Clark and Echeverry said.
The Golden Knights were training as part of the team's intensive recertification cycle, jumping from a plane more than 12,500 feet above the ground.
But on this day, the team decided to practice a difficult maneuver known as a Quad Side-by-Side - a formation where four jumpers would be tethered together and form a straight line to fall in formation.
The maneuver, according to Clark, was new for this Golden Knights team and hadn't been attempted by any Golden Knights for about six years.
"It hadn't been done by us," said Clark, who added that the Golden Knights perform similar maneuvers regularly.
After jumping from the plane, all four Golden Knights moved into position and successfully linked into the maneuver, Clark and Echeverry said.
About 6,000 feet above the ground, all was well.
Seconds later, at about 4,000 feet, it "all went wrong," Clark said.
Clark said that when the Golden Knights pulled down the flags they were flying with, he was pulled out of formation and violently slung through the lines of the two soldiers next to him.
"We were all wrapped up in each others parachutes," said Echeverry.
The fourth jumper was able to cut away, the Golden Knights said.
The third, Staff Sgt. Tom Pryjda, also managed to untangle himself and fall from the scrum.
But Echeverry and Clark couldn't cut away, they said, because of lines tangled around their necks.
If Echeverry was to cut away, he said, he feared that he would hang himself.
"When it went wrong, it went really bad," said Clark.
With the pair continuing their descent, Echeverry climbed up Clark's body to try to untangle the lines.
The whole time, the two said they were calmly talking to each other, just like they were trained to do.
When Echeverry realized he couldn't untangle the lines, Clark squeezed his legs.
"Don't worry buddy, we'll be OK," said Clark.
Then, Clark said, "it got interesting again."
As the two did their best to steer themselves toward their drop zone, they hit a pocket of warmer air, which spun their parachutes into a downplane - a term that describes two parachutes facing 180 degrees apart, parallel to the ground.
Now, the two were falling about 65 mph and were roughly 600 feet from the ground.
"Neither one of us were getting away from each other," Clark said. "It just wasn't happening. It was a big giant mess."
The entire time, Echeverry was being choked by his own lines. He was seconds away from blacking out.
"I realized there was no way to survive it," Echeverry said. "I cut away so at least one of us could walk away."
What Echeverry didn't hear was Clark, shouting from above. What Echeverry thought was a sacrificial act was actually just what Clark wanted him to do.
Clark said he knew that if Echeverry could cut his lines, the two might right themselves.
"I did not know that was going to work out," Clark said. "But I had him, and I wasn't letting go."
Like Echeverry, Clark also has a wife and children - Kelly and 15-year-old Dare and 18-month-old Nash.
When Echeverry came to, he was about 100 feet from the ground, looking up into the sky.
He was in disbelief, he said.
"I played that scenario in my head - there was no way we were walking out of that together," Echeverry said. "We just prayed for the best."
The men hit the ground with a thud - they fell much faster than usual because Clark was holding Echeverry and was unable to slow his parachute.
On impact, both were injured.
Clark injured his back. He suffered from bulging discs, nylon burns on his neck and a variety of bumps and bruises, he said.
Echeverry suffered from bruised bones, an injured knee and his own set of bumps and bruises.
The nylon cord cut through his skin, too, Echeverry said, injuring his trachea and an artery.
"It took me a while to realize I was still alive," Echeverry said. "I thought, 'This is what it feels like to be dead.' "
The voice of his first sergeant snapped him out of it, he said, but he stayed still, fearing he was seriously injured.
As for Clark, he said his landing came with a big sigh of relief.
"I was glad to be on the ground in one piece and breathing," Clark said. "I was definitely out of it. I was really tired."
On Wednesday, both soldiers said they owed the other his life.
"It's a very special and important day for us," Echeverry said.
But Echeverry said he only did what he thought he had to do.
"Had it been anybody else, they would have done the same thing," he said. "We were just trying to make it and work it through."
Since the fall, both soldiers have recovered and are back to jumping with the Golden Knights, which perform all over the country and in international competitions.
With today's ceremony approaching, both men said they were excited for the honor.
But reliving the event is nerve-wracking, too.
Both men are veteran jumpers who passed the Golden Knights' rigorous selection program.
Echeverry, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has more than 850 free fall parachute jumps, according to officials. Clark, from Salem, Ohio, has more than 2,500 free fall parachute jumps.
Both men have nine-year Army careers.
The Soldier's Medal is a prestigious award and receiving it is humbling, the two said.
The thought of being recognized for their actions was far from their minds in February when they faced death in the sky above Florida.
"I'm just grateful to be alive," Clark said.