MARION, Montana -- A quadriplegic skydiver plunged 18,000 feet to his death because he was unable to manually deploy his parachute, and his emergency chute was not set to automatically release, authorities said on Monday.
Zack Fogle, 27, of Kingston, Washington, died Saturday afternoon just minutes after he and seven others launched themselves from a plane during the 44th annual Lost Prairie Boogie event in northwest Montana that drew scores of parachutists, said Flathead County Undersheriff Jordan White.
Fogle, a veteran of 125 jumps over five years, was hampered by his physical disability from manually activating his primary parachute and was likely counting on his backup chute to deploy.
He hit the ground from a fall estimated at 120 miles per hour, White said.
Investigators drew their conclusions from video of Fogle and statements by skydiving partners.
An examination of Fogle's equipment showed no malfunctions, suggesting the skydiver failed to properly set a device that would have caused his reserve parachute to open on its own.
White said Fogle's death has been ruled an accident, dispelling widespread rumors of a suicide wish.
"Zack died with another jump pass in his pocket," said White. "He was living his dream. His was an incredible story of his drive to live and to excel in this sport despite being disabled from an (automobile) accident when he was a junior in high school."
White said the pre-jump activation of the emergency parachute, which the Federal Aviation Administration requires be inspected and repacked every six months by an FAA-certified rigger, entails complicated sequencing which may have been inadvertently overlooked by Fogle in the "hustle and bustle of everything going on."
Evidence suggests Fogle likely believed he had triggered the mechanism in the field before he got on the plane for the jump, which was overseen by a safety adviser at the door of the aircraft, officials said.
Skydivers can manually deploy reserve chutes mid-fall, but physical challenges likely prevented Fogle from taking advantage of what is considered a last-ditch but fail-safe practice, said White, a licensed pilot.
Jumpers who saw Fogle in the last seconds of his life said he had rolled over onto his back, a feat only the skilled can master, White said.
He said it also was possible that Fogle experienced spatial disorientation, preventing him from realizing before it was too late how near the earth he was.
"He would never have seen the ground coming; he may not ever have known," said White.
An FAA investigation is under way and will likely take weeks, agency spokesman Allen Kenitzer said Monday.
Improvements in equipment and training are credited for an overall decline in U.S. skydiving deaths, numbering 21 last year, according to the United States Parachute Association.
Nancy Koreen, the association's director of sport promotions, said it is "basically unheard of" for both the primary and reserve chutes to fail for mechanical reasons.