A Skydiving Accident in Switzerland Changed My Life
Falling 2,000 feet out of the sky gave me a new perspective.
Skydiving is one of the biggest rushes that you can experience. It takes the human body through one hell of a rollercoaster of emotions: anticipation, anxiety, fear, excitement, adrenaline, relief.
I’m a certified skydiver, with an A-level license from the United States Parachute Association. I’ve skydived dozens of times, both solo and in groups. I’ve loved skydiving all throughout my life. I’ve always believed that chances of accidents in skydiving are low because of the many precautions in place to reduce risk, and the very high safety standards for all the equipment professional skydivers use. Accidents are most likely to happen during advanced maneuvers; typically “normal” skydiving results in even fewer issues.
In 2016, I meticulously planned a month-long solo trip around Europe, ending in Interlaken, Switzerland, a place where I’d always wanted to skydive. I’d been a professional instructor for four years, and although I hadn’t jumped in two and a half years, I wasn’t nervous. I felt like I hadn’t taken a break at all. I couldn’t wait.
Against All Odds, My Parachute Failed
Tucked in an alpine valley between the glistening mountain lakes of Thun and Brienz, Interlaken is ideally situated for exploring the Swiss Alps. Surrounded by the snowy mantles of Harder Kulm, the Eiger and the Jungfrau—arguably Europe’s most beautiful mountain—it’s the gateway to Bernese Oberland, as well as a popular vacation resort in its own right. I wanted to see the Matterhorn—which I knew from the logo for Toblerone, the iconic Swiss chocolate brand—for myself.
As I flew over this gorgeous landscape in the front of a Twin Otter prop plane, facing my six-foot-six English jumpmaster (a goofy and entertaining guy), I looked out the window and admired the view. When the light turned green and it was my turn to jump, I shuffled to the door, handed the jumpmaster my static line, gave him the biggest shit-eating grin and jumped straight out.
The wind roared in my ears. My harness jerked me around. With my arms overhead, my knees bent and my feet pressed together behind me—so that I looked like an upside-down banana—I leveled out before pulling my parachute.
Ten long seconds after I pulled the cord, the canopy of the parachute opened partially. The connecting ropes trailed out and quickly snarled up. I struggled to untangle them, but I couldn’t. I was falling fast. Then the automatic activation device, which is a small electronic device that attaches to your body and monitors the rate of descent and altitude, automatically deployed the reserve parachute, but its ropes wound up tangled in the main parachute too. After several more failed attempts at untangling myself, I started to panic.
Had I Landed Just a Few Meters Away, the Outcome Would Have Been Much Different
It was the most terrifying minute of my life. As I plummeted toward the ground from 2,000 feet in the air, the faces of my family members appeared in front of my eyes. I was certain I was about to die. I was going so fast: How could I possibly survive something like that? I continued plummeting, with two parachutes on my back, for what felt like forever. Until that moment, I’d never really appreciated my life. I had only taken it for granted. I was dropping at speed, but I had so much time to think. It may seem obvious, but all that was going through my head was, “I really don’t want to die.”
Just before impact, I closed my eyes, holding the image of my parents in front of me. And then I landed with a thud.
I’d survived. How? I felt so much gratitude to still be alive. My mind raced with thoughts about everything I wanted to do with my life.
I was in the middle of a field. I was absolutely conscious and in instant pain. The grass surrounding me was green and shiny. I was just meters away from a concrete surface that would have killed me for sure if I’d landed there. I could feel—and hear—my broken rib bones. My mouth was full of blood. My whole body was in the most intense pain I’d ever felt. I knew I had to try to get help, but there wasn’t anybody around. I tried to move and realized that I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. I couldn’t crawl or even lift my hand. It was horrible. A few minutes before I’d been completely fine. Now I was paralyzed and might be that way forever.
After a short while, two people rushed towards me. Seeing my intense pain and the blood everywhere, they immediately rang an air ambulance. Soon I was being airlifted to the hospital. The ride was excruciating, and I slowly lost consciousness. On the outside, I had barely a scratch, but I had broken my rib cage and shattered my teeth. My hands were broken in three places. I had suffered a spinal cord injury.
By the next day, my brother and sister had flown in from India. I broke down crying beside my brother. I didn’t know how I would be able to cope with life in a wheelchair. I loved traveling so much. And forget about skydiving—there was a chance that I wouldn't even be able to walk properly again.
My Skydiving Accident Survival Ignited a Renewed Sense of Gratitude
After a couple of months in a Swiss hospital, I was allowed to fly back to India with my family, where I stayed in the hospital for another five months, doing physiotherapy every day to try and improve what little movement I had. Somehow, with my daily efforts and practice making small movements very slowly, I started to see improvement. Over the course of the following year, I began to stand on my feet, then move my knees, then eventually my legs. It was slow, and initially very painful, but my condition improved a lot. I couldn’t believe the improvement. I reckon it was a mixture of practice, patience and luck. Then miraculously, one day I was able to walk on two crutches with my physio’s help.
The lasting effects of my accident are permanent, though. I still walk with a limp and I get tired easily. I still don’t feel any sensation from below where I was injured. I face difficulty in controlling my bladder and bowels. With all the support I received from my friends and family, I managed to accept the reality. Limping, digestive pain and difficulty in controlling my pee became my new normal.
Since the accident, my perspective has changed a lot. I feel more gratitude toward my body: My eyes with which I can read, my hands with which I can write, my senses with which I can still smell and taste. Yes, I still miss the thrill of skydiving, and the adrenaline rush of being in the air, but I reckon myself to be lucky to be alive and to have my friends who are my greatest support system. It’s a beautiful life, and I could easily have lost it.