Skydiving accidents are pretty rare as is, and this one will likely never happen again. It’s not every day that you hear about somebody surviving a 14,500 foot fall, let alone surviving a skydive gone wrong that involves being swarmed and stung by thousands of fire ants. Joan Murray, the 47 year old adrenaline junkie, eagerly anticipated a routine skydive on September 25, 1999. On that dive, she endured all of the above firsthand. Joan bit off more than she could chew with this thrill. This skydiver traded adventure for a 2-week long coma tied to a now infamous near death experience.
Parachute Malfunction: From Euphoria to Emergency
Murray, a bank executive based in North Carolina, gained a small amount of skydiving experience during her short stint with the sport prior to the accident. With barely enough for her initial ‘A’ license, she had approximately 30 skydives to boast about. Long time skydivers might easily jump just as much in a weekend, but Murray was confident in her skill and had no way of knowing her main parachute would fail. Realizing she was in dire straits and plunging toward the ground at 80+ miles per hour, Murray had to think fast in order to save her life.
Every skydiving aficionado knows that when the main parachute does not activate, you have to cut-away the main (so the reserve can’t become tangled with it) and release your reserve. If your reserve malfunctions, you’re out of luck. One main. One reserve. That’s it. So, it’s a last resort for anyone.
By the time Murray pulled the ripcord for her reserve, she was only 700 feet from the ground. Adrenaline coursing through her veins caused fear and panic set in, and she didn’t take effective action to prevent herself from spinning. Constant rotation prevented the secondary chute from inflating properly, inevitably leading to a forceful crash landing into a fire ant-breeding mound.
Murray’s Crash Landing: The Venomous Fire Ant Swarm
The mini crater-like impact disturbed the territory of some rather angry fire ants. A single sting is painful enough to avoid even in small numbers. It’s important to mention most colonies are dome shaped and generally 250,000+ ants in size. Virtually all members headed straight for our fallen skydiver. The swarm attacked an ‘out of commission’ Joan Murray, leading to shocking results.
Life Saving Stings: Fire Ants Potentially Saved Joan Murray’s Life
Allergic reaction to ant venom can cause death in some cases, and each toxin-filled “bite” causes near instant pain. However, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and her otherwise unfortunate landing spot might have saved her from an untimely death.
Paramedics brought a barely conscious Joan to Carolinas Medical Center for emergency treatment. Doctors determined that repeated fire ant stings luckily shocked her heartbeat and stimulated her nerves. The insect assault kept her heart beating and her organs functioning long enough to keep her alive during transport, where she fell into a comatose state. Metal spikes were inserted through both her legs and pelvis to support the shattered bones in her right leg, and she remained unconscious for two weeks. Unbearable pain and tragedy lead Joan Murray to overcome impossible odds, and she is truly lucky to be alive.
Once a skydiver, always a skydiver
They say that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. It’s true in Murray’s case. She took the plunge after a two-year recovery and hasn’t showed a sign of stopping anytime soon. Thankfully, this story ends with a woman undeterred from an incredible sport. Everyone starts with tandem-skydiving, where instructors do all the work for you. She’s graduated beyond that and will be ever-vigilant in preparing for her jumps ahead.
She does take life more seriously now. To quote her, “I have learned to take time for the important things in life. I say ‘I love you’ and ‘thank you’ a lot more since the experience”.