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Death arrives at free-fall fest





Published Online August 4, 2002


   RANTOUL – With thousands of jumps each day at the World Free Fall Convention in Rantoul, authorities had braced themselves for the possibility of one or even two sky-diving deaths. But not this. And not so soon.


On Friday night, during the first day of competition at the former Chanute Air Force Base, a Maryland man was killed videotaping his friend's sky-diving adventure when he apparently got too close to the helicopter as it was taking off. Timothy Kalendek, 32, of Joppa, Md., died instantly when he was clipped by the helicopter's rotor blades. He was pronounced dead at 8:27 p.m. of multiple traumatic injuries, said Bill Fabian, chief deputy coroner for Champaign County.


Fabian said Mr. Kalendek had a friend on board the helicopter and wanted to videotape his first ride. He had asked officials for permission to get close to the helicopter, but “for obvious reasons, they told him not to,” Fabian said. “He was trying to get some unique perspectives as the helicopter took off,” Fabian said.


According to witnesses, Mr. Kalendek stepped out of an adjacent cornfield into the path of the helicopter as it was taking off, officials said.


The nose dips down as the helicopter lifts off tail-first, and the pilot also made a turn at the same time, bringing the blades closer to the ground, said Coroner Roger Swaney. “The pilot takes off and basically puts the nose down and tilts the helicopter to go around the cornfields. The guy steps out and, bam, that's it,” Fabian said. “It just happened so fast that there's nothing that anybody could do about it. The helicopter pilot couldn't do anything. He was really shook up.”


Mr. Kalendek's brother-in-law was also videotaping the liftoff and caught the accident on camera, Fabian said. The helicopter was carrying a number of passengers, but it landed safely and no one else was injured, officials said. The accident occurred in a rather remote section of the landing zone, and there weren't many people nearby, said Rantoul Police Chief Paul Dollins.


Dollins said there were no indications that the helicopter malfunctioned, and Fabian said he was told the pilot is “very experienced.” The coroner's office, the Rantoul Police Department and the Federal Aviation Administration are all investigating the accident. “We're going to have to sort out precisely what happened,” Dollins said, noting that an inquest will be held. “It should have been an avoidable accident. Somebody erred.


“It's very, very unfortunate,” he said.The helicopter, one of several that take sky divers up for jumps, was grounded for the duration of the investigation, said convention spokeswoman Beth Mahlo. She declined to discuss the accident until the investigation is complete.


About 11 sky-diving deaths were associated with the convention during the 13 years it was held in Quincy before moving to Rantoul this summer, according to Mahlo. “This was not a sky-diving accident,” she emphasized. “We never expected this, and we didn't expect it so soon,” Fabian said of Friday's gruesome scene. Mr. Kalendek's friends contacted his fiance back in Maryland and other family members, Fabian said. They've since headed home.


Despite the accident, events continued as scheduled on Saturday. Swaney, who talked with a number of sky divers Saturday morning, said they hadn't heard much about the accident. “Mostly jumpers know safety and to stay away from things like this. They respect danger,” he said. “Sky divers are a realistic bunch of people,” Mahlo added. “They know they're involved in a dangerous sport. And while they mourn every accident, they're very careful to examine it and find out why it happened, what happened,” she said.


Dollins said there have been no other problems with the event so far.

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Wow, it only takes once, doesn't it?


Sigh, I cannot imagine how horrible that must have been.   :(



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