The moment Scott Spraycar opened his parachute on Saturday, he knew it was going to be a challenging jump.

The skydive into Washington-Grizzly Stadium is already fraught with its own set of dangers, as any of the Silvertip Skydivers will attest.

"It's a little more intense not only because you have a lot of people, but the way it's positioned requires a lot more attention," said Spraycar, who watched his friend and colleague Blaine Wright miss the stadium and crash onto concrete Saturday before the kickoff of the Montana-Weber State football game. "It's a more technical jump."

And made more technical and challenging by sudden brisk winds that sprang up Saturday, blowing Wright off course and causing him to turn, clip a tree and slam onto a concrete retaining wall on the southeast corner of the stadium.

The 53-year-old Wright, who grew up in Missoula and now lives in Whitefish, has been skydiving since he was 15 and is undergoing a series of surgeries at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for multiple fractures, including a broken pelvis, leg, hip and arm.

Reached by phone from Seattle on Monday afternoon, Wright's sister Beth Cole said her brother was "positive and upbeat," even as he prepared to go into the first of his surgeries. But he also remembers nothing about what caused him to be flown to Harborview.

"He remembers being in the air and he remembers flying over the stadium," she said. "He doesn't remember the trauma."

The trauma could have been far worse, and more widespread, had Wright not made the last-second decision to turn his chute around to avoid slamming into the crowd.

He was on course to do just that in the student section of the stadium.

"His main objective in this entire thing was to minimize other people's injuries," said Cole, who has kept a hospital-room vigil next to her brother since Saturday.

Multiple witnesses confirmed that.

"I was watching him as he was heading in, and I was doing the geometry in my head," said Spraycar. "I could see he wasn't going to make it. It looked like a deliberate action on his part to make that sharp turn."

Another witness, Geoff Badenoch, was ushering in the southeast corner of the stadium and said Wright's turn was made deliberately to avoid hitting spectators.

"I saw him come around and try to make his quick turn, and he came around the big pine tree there," said Badenoch. "As I recall, his chute caught the tree and as soon as it did, it lost all its air."

Cole, a teacher at Hellgate High School, has watched her brother skydive multiple times into Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Sitting on the stadium's west side, she could see that something was wrong as Wright descended from the east.

"I actually could see it was going badly because I could see that he was kind of stalling, that he was coming into a little bit of a head wind," she said. "I could tell the winds were too aggressive."

Once Wright crashed, "I just knew I needed to get to him," said Cole. "I just started running to get to him."

***

The Silvertip Skydiving club monitors wind conditions all morning before deciding whether to go ahead with a stadium jump. By 12:30 p.m., the club has to make the initial decision whether to take off in its airplane, said Spraycar.

Once at jumping altitude, the club once again checks wind conditions from a wind gauge on top of the Washington-Grizzly Stadium pressbox. On Saturday, readings placed the wind speed at a steady 7 mph - within the range of acceptable conditions, said Spraycar.

"They were steady between 7 and 8 mph and had been that way for a good 10 to 15 minutes," he said. "That's within our parameters. So four to five minutes before the actual jump, everything seemed fine."

But then those winds grew stronger - and worse, began gusting, a fact all three skydivers realized at the moment their parachutes opened.

"As soon as we got under canopy, we could tell the winds were stronger," said Spraycar, the second jumper and himself a 37-year skydiving veteran. "We were open about 3,500 feet. Normally we're OK, but the wind conditions were already strong at that altitude. And they were strong all the way down."

The skydivers have certain bailout zones where they can make emergency landings - including the Clover Bowl and even the UM Oval, said Spraycar. But the lower they get, the fewer options they have.

Based on his experiences and on the last wind conditions reported from the ground, Spraycar said he assumed that the winds would lighten as the skydivers descended.

"I was more or less assuming they would let up, but they didn't," he said. "And as you get lower, you're more or less committing to get into there because that's the safest place to land."

Once out of options, Wright had a simple choice: Crash into the crowd, or turn around.

"He veered off and took his chances on that little lawn," said Spraycar, who calls Wright "a highly experienced, highly respected skydiver in the skydiving world."

Another witness to the accident was a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, who was at the game to ensure that the Silvertip Skydiving club was in compliance with FAA regulations.

They were, said Mike Fergus, a spokesperson for the FAA Northwest Mountain Region in Renton, Wash.

Once the plane and the parachutes are inspected, "that's the end of our jurisdiction," said Fergus. In other words, once the parachutes open, the FAA has "no role whatsoever" in the outcome of the jump.

"We inspect the plane and the parachutes," he said. "Neither of those were out of order. Winds are winds, and we can't control that."

***

However, in light of the accident, the University of Montana is revisiting its longstanding relationship with the Silvertip Skydiving club, whose parachutists have been making pre-game jumps since the days of Dornblaser Field.

"I know Silvertip wants to continue, and we will continue to look at all safety aspects and move accordingly," said UM athletic director Jim O'Day, who stressed that "first and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with (Wright) and his family."

UM will conduct a "global review" of its relationship with the Silvertip Skydivers, one that involves not just the UM athletic department, but all levels of UM administration including UM President Royce Engstrom, said vice president Jim Foley.

"We're going to be having discussions this week as part of a larger agenda," said Foley. "I think when these kind of situations occur, we need a campus review and seek additional input."

However, the probable installation of field lighting on the stadium's four corners by next football season "may make that a moot point," said O'Day. The lights, which are scheduled to be installed for night practices next season, add yet another challenge to making a successful landing onto the field, he said. That will factor into any decisions about the future of pre-game skydives - as will the popularity of the skydivers and the excitement they bring to game day.

"They're always trying to hit the midfield bear, and it's amazing the way they do it," said O'Day. "These are very talented individuals, and this is something the crowd truly loves."

Cole said her brother has a "long recovery ahead of him," but knows the outcome could have been much worse.

"There's no brain involvement and he has the use of his legs," she said. "But he survived this, and he survived it intact."

He also earned the further admiration of a proud sister.

"In a split second," said Cole, "he made a decision that thought of everyone else ahead of himself."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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