Marines attribute training to saved lives

21 Oct 2002 | Sgt. Pamela A. Kershaw

Two of the three jumpers involved in the recent parachute incident here talked to local and national reporters Oct. 4 to share their experiences of what happened when they found themselves freefalling with no main parachute.

The jumpers, 2nd Transportation Support Battalion's 1st. Lt. Christopher M. Cole and Cpl. Jose A. Ortega, told the press during a press conference at the TSB Air Delivery Platoon Paraloft here that their training saved their lives.

"It was a perfect day to jump," said 21-year-old Ortega. "I exited the aircraft and soon realized I had to do what I had to do to save my life."

The Pittsburg, Calif., native, said he was the fourth man to leave the U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster Sept. 21 during "routine" heavy equipment/personnel parachute operations here.  Three of the first five static-line jumpers experienced a total malfunction of their main parachutes that required all three jumpers to deploy their reserve parachutes.

Ortega said as soon as he exited the plane he knew his main parachute did not open. Following standard operational procedures, Ortega explained that he looked up only to see suspension lines above him. He said he "never had a moment of panic" and instantly pulled the T-10 reserve parachute strapped around his waist.

Ortega said upon impact his first concern was not for himself, but his fellow Marines and their safety.

"I wanted to make sure the other jumpers were OK," he said.

Although a little rattled, Ortega said the incident has not deterred him from jumping again.

"I'm anxious; I want to go back up," he claimed. "Some Marines might be nervous about jumping, but I'm highly motivated."

To prove his motivation and love for the Corps, Ortega raised his hand and re-enlisted Sept. 31.

Cole had similar thoughts about the day's events.

"I went on autopilot," said the Tampa, Fla., native. "'I have a total malfunction' was what went through my mind."

The 29-year-old also attributed past training to saving his life.

"It was muscle memory; I pulled the rip cord and safely landed on the (ground)," he said.

During the media event, the Marines explained procedures used during "sustained airborne training."  Sergeant Britton C. Howes, who was the Sept. 21 jumpmaster, explained the inspections he and his assistant jumpmaster conduct on each Marine before a jump. 

Howes initially ceased jumping operations that Saturday after he witnessed the shoots' malfunction and pulled the five deployment bags aboard the aircraft to inspect them.  There he discovered three of the bags still had the main canopies attached.

"It was very shocking," Howes said about his initial reaction. "They'd basically jumped out without a chute."

According to Cole, the whole platoon was shaken after the incident, and Col. John E. Wissler, TSB's commanding officer, provided the Marines counseling and training to help them through this period.

"Things like this can bust up a family, and we are a family! In our case it has made us stronger," said Cole in retrospect.

Cole said the platoon will be back in the air training some time next month.

The incident is still under investigation by both the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Judge Advocate General.