A New York City corrections officer was killed one day before his birthday and another man was critically injured in a skydiving accident at Skydive Long Island in Calverton July 30, officials said.
Federal authorities said the accident, believed to be the result of a mini-tornado, occurred at 4:10 p.m.
Relatives identified the deceased as Gary Messina of Medford, a New York City corrections officer since 2012 and a graduate of Patchogue-Medford High School. He was the father of one son, his family said.
Gary Messina’s brother Anthony told reporters outside the family’s Medford home the morning after the accident that Mr. Messina was “one of the strongest people you could know.” Anthony said he nicknamed his brother “Go Hard” because of his hard-working attitude.
“Everything he did, he went hard,” Mr. Messina said. “He went 100 percent, 100 percent of himself in everything that he did. He’s an inspiration to so many people.”
In addition to his work as a corrections officer, Mr. Messina supported his young son, Anthony Messina said.
“[He was] a father like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “He loves him so much. He’s the world to him and he loves that boy.”
Thursday, July 31, would have been Gary’s 26th birthday, Anthony Messina said.
“I love you, Gary,” Anthony said through sobs. “Happy birthday.”
Gary’s father, Carl Messina, a former Newsday pressman, told the newspaper Thursday his son had gone skydiving every year around his birthday for the past seven or eight years.
“He was a man’s man,” his father told Newsday, “an inspiration to all who knew him.”
The instructor was identified by police as Christopher Scott, 28, of Sound Beach. He was airlifted from Calverton to Stony Brook University Medical Center.
According to his online résumé, Mr. Scott has been an instructor at SkyDive Long Island since March 2012.
The accident was “unequivocally” caused by a mini-tornado known as a “dust devil,” according to the national director of the United States Parachute Association.
Richard Winstock, who interviewed all the witnesses of the accident, said the mini-tornado collapsed the jumpers’ parachute, propelling them into a free-fall toward the ground. Based on his interviews, Mr. Winstock estimated the collapse happened anywhere from 75 to 150 feet above the ground.
“All accounts confirmed that this was an uncommon weather phenomenon,” Mr. Winstock said in an interview Friday. “It’s commonly referred to as a dust devil.”
Mr. Winstock said it appears Mr. Scott did everything within his power to avoid the mini-tornado.
“He was attempting to land in an alternate landing area,” Mr. Winstock said. “I haven’t talked to him, but the mere fact that he was landing in an alternate landing area, he either saw something or sensed something or maybe he saw another canopy get affected.”
Skydive Long Island, which opened in 1986, released a statement Friday afternoon expressing sympathy for the families.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the deceased and to our tandem instructor and his family,” the statement said. “Skydive Long Island maintains one of the safest skydiving records in the United States. This is the first tandem fatality we have had since opening in 1986. We are fully cooperating with all agencies involved in the investigation of this case.”
This is the first tandem fatality reported at Skydive Long Island in Calverton, though the death of a single jumper was reported at the company’s East Moriches location in 1989.
In 2008, Mr. Maynard told hamptons.com the company averages one injury per year. Two years ago, a diver got stuck in a tree following a sudden storm. Last year, an experienced skydiver broke his leg following a jump.
Mini-tornadoes are uncommon on Long Island, Mr. Winstock said. They’re more prevalent in places like Arizona, he said.
As the chairman of the safety and training committee for the USPA, Mr. Winstock said he reviews all skydiving accident reports.
“It’s just very rare that you hear about one in the East,” he said.
Mr. Winstock reiterated that there was no apparent equipment malfunction or error on the instructor’s part.
“I can unequivocally say that this had absolutely zero to do with equipment and instructor error,” he said.
Mini-tornadoes can occur as high as 1,000 feet, Mr. Winstock said. If a jumper encounters one at a higher altitude, there’s still a chance the jump can be salvaged by re-inflating the canopy, he said.
In the case of July 30’s accident, there was no chance for recovery.
“Just the violence in the description of the canopy collapsing and the tandem pair being actually dragged with the mini-tornado, it’s just very typical of a dust devil,” Mr. Winstock said. “It’s completely unrecoverable.”
There’s no way to predict a dust devil by weather reports, Mr. Winstock said. In the air, they can be visible. In a corn field, for example, corn can sometimes be seen whipping around.
The Federal Aviation Administration is still investigating the accident, a standard procedure.
New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Norman Seabrook told the New York Daily News the accident was an “unfortunate tragedy” and called Mr. Messina “a great officer with so much promise.”
“Our hearts go out to his family, and we will always be there for them,” Mr. Seabrook said.
An initial Medevac request was made at 4:15 p.m. July 30 but was canceled after Suffolk Police gave an ETA of 20 minutes, Riverhead police confirmed. A second request was then made at 4:35 p.m. and the helicopter left the scene headed for Stony Brook University Medical Center at 5:11 p.m., police said.
“My prayers are with those two families,” Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said.
Sobbing friends and family members made phone calls from the scene while investigators interviewed witnesses. A large group of corrections officers arrived in the evening. Police finally cleared the property, where the regional media had arrived, when the last remaining investigators left shortly after 9 p.m.
In 2013, there were 24 skydiving fatalities in the U.S. out of an estimated 3.2 millions jumps, according to the United States Parachute Association. Another skydiving fatality, possibly a suicide, was reported in Jamul, Calif., earlier that day, according to City News Service of San Diego. A retired Navy SEAL was killed in a skydiving accident in Wisconsin earlier this month, according to the Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee.