One year after midair collision above Superior, skydivers look back on their miracle
One year ago, two small planes collided at sunset and people fell from the sky over Superior. Nine skydivers aboard the mangled planes jumped -- as did the pilot of one plane before it crashed to the ground in flames. The pilot of the other sever...
One year ago, two small planes collided at sunset and people fell from the sky over Superior.
Nine skydivers aboard the mangled planes jumped - as did the pilot of one plane before it crashed to the ground in flames. The pilot of the other severely damaged plane managed to land.
As the first survivors landed they counted the remaining descending parachutes and were astonished: Everyone was alive. Even the pilot of the flaming, corkscrewing wreck was alive.
“It wasn’t a miracle that one of us survived or any of us survived,” said Dan Chandler, 32, one of the skydivers who as a group were dubbed the “Miracle 11.” “It was a miracle that all of us survived.”
At Vintage Italian Pizza on Tower Avenue in Superior last week, four of the skydivers and the owner of Skydive Superior - the skydiving drop zone at the Richard I. Bong Airport - gathered to discuss the events of Nov. 2, 2013, and the emotional roller-coaster of the past 12 months.
As the pizzas arrived and the conversation flowed, it was telling who was not at the table.
Both pilots were absent; they’ve moved away from the Northland. The conclusions of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation have yet to be released.
Five of the skydivers weren’t at the table, either. Their absence is owed to free will and fatigue. After a year of whirlwind media exposure, including appearances on NBC’s “Today” and “Dateline” shows immediately after the event, there is a sense among some in the group that enough is enough.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore,” is how Chandler described the attitude after a year of requests and demands upon their time. “It gets terribly old answering the same nine questions over and over. ‘Describe your feelings.’ And when you do, it’s never good enough.”
Skydiver LaNaya Bonogofsky, 32, agreed.
“It’s not something you can easily get across to someone,” she said. “It’s like trying to describe skydiving.”
The group at the pizza parlor table takes a stab at describing skydiving and it comes out like this: In the first three months of skydiving, all a person wants to do is tell everybody about this bright new thing in their life. Then, they find that nobody can relate and that the language of skydiving is lost on outsiders. By the fourth month, a skydiver stops telling people about what they do for thrills; the only way a skydiver can revel in the sport is with other skydivers.
It’s in this manner that the sport draws its participants close together. It’s this closeness that benefited the Miracle 11 most in the moments after the incident that threatened their lives.
“We’re all really good friends,” said Barry Sinex, who, along with Mike Robinson, is north of 50, making them the oldest members of a Miracle 11 group that spans a wide age range. Sinex said the worldwide community of skydivers is relatively small and tight-knit because of their mutual understanding of a little-understood pursuit. Within 18 hours of the crash a year ago, the Miracle 11 group had heard from skydiving colleagues or acquaintances around the world.
Story of survival
In video of the crash - captured by the skydivers on helmet-mounted cameras - Chandler can be seen pre-dive, outside his aircraft, when he suddenly is pressed by the colliding planes, breaking a rib in the process. He is left clinging to a strut with his arm.
NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Chandler if he was worried about being cut to pieces in the planes’ propellers. But what Chandler now recalls most, he said, is hearing the Doppler effect as the two planes came together.
“The two tones peaking at the same moment,” Chandler said. “Two props merging and shredding.”
When Chandler let go of the strut, he was whisked away from the scene like a tissue in the wind. It’s among the most harrowing scenes in a collage of videos full of them as the other skydivers extracted themselves from the stricken planes.
Once on the ground, the survivors circled the airfield in a pickup truck as they accounted for everyone - and everything. The one broken-up plane crashed in flames, but harmlessly, on the nearby Douglas County Fairgrounds. The other plane landed intact but severely damaged.
After meeting emergency responders and then local media, the Miracle 11 gathered together inside the hangar. The hoopla had waned. They were alone. They shared beers. Some joked. Some would argue that some of the others joked too soon.
It was within this circle of friends, with parachutes and gear spread out over the floor, that they hatched a plan to save their drop zone, to save their hobby in the Twin Ports. What could have been a henhouse of bickering and selfish interests leading to bitter feelings or, worse, lawsuits, never did materialize. Instead, the survivors stayed true to their sport and their friendships. Everyone was concerned about everyone else, and, in the end, they were most concerned about Skydive Superior and its owners, the Androsky family.
‘Eggs in one basket’
Skydive Superior was started in 1960 by Charles and Beve Androsky and is the second-oldest drop zone in the country. It remains family-owned by one of their sons, Gary Androsky, 48, who’d stepped away from a day at the drop zone for just seven minutes when he heard the collision in the air at his nearby home. He found out soon enough that both of Skydive Superior’s Cessna airplanes were gone - one a wreck, the other expertly landed by its pilot but no longer operational.
It was Sinex who first connected the dots. The nine skydivers on the two planes had planned for a formation dive, for which they had employed five helmet-mounted cameras to capture the team’s aerial exercises. The crash event was recorded on those five cameras in high-definition video. Sinex began to reason to himself.
“We could try to keep all our eggs in one basket,” he thought. By doing so, the Miracle 11 had a chance to save their drop zone by raising enough money to acquire a new plane.
Bonogofsky recalled the group was in full agreement when Sinex emerged from an office and proposed the idea to pool and sell the dramatic footage.
Robinson doesn’t remember it that way. He said he confronted Sinex with a profanity. Sinex remembered it, too. Robinson was appalled. But within a half-hour, Robinson reversed course. Saving the drop zone “is what clarified it for me,” he recalled.
Sinex, a self-made businessman, and Androsky initiated a bidding war among major television networks. Before midnight on the night of the crash, they were working the deal on their phones, while Robinson, a retired Minnesota Department of Transportation official, handled the news media. By 8 p.m. the next day, about 26 hours after the crash, the nine skydivers and Androsky were on their way to New York City courtesy of NBC, which bought two weeks of exclusive rights to the compelling footage for $100,000, Robinson said.
The Washington Post responded with a story questioning if NBC’s payment was ethical for a respected newsgathering enterprise. The Miracle 11 worried about ethics, too. They were cognizant of all of the people who have died in pursuit of the same thrill they chase. Less than two weeks before their harrowing escape, 11 people were killed in a skydiving plane crash in Belgium.
“Nobody wanted to be famous from this,” Robinson said.
Still, the plan was in place. “Save the drop zone” was its mantra.
When the skydivers boarded the plane to New York, their five video cameras were in a briefcase like gold bullion. Flight attendants were apprised of their passengers and brought the beverage cart to the back of the plane. They opened up the bar. The way those picking at the pizza last week remembered it, the cart was emptied by the time the plane landed in New York City.
The trip was fast-paced. The appearance on “Today” took place on Tuesday, within four days of the crash. Robinson stayed in New York to edit film an extra day or two with the NBC crews for the one-hour “Dateline NBC” special that aired Nov. 8.
Back home from their whirlwind visit to New York, the Miracle 11 joined scores of others, including first responders, at VIP on Tower Avenue for a festive viewing of the “Dateline” episode.
In the year since, the footage has subsequently been sold to a media company that collects royalties. The skydivers have had to set up a corporation to control the income. The group has been the subject of features on BBC television and in places as far off as Japan. Each production crew wants a new round of interviews.
Crews from overseas recently were in the Twin Ports to produce another segment on the Miracle 11, for a television program documenting one-in-a-million events. The tale of the Miracle 11 is set to live on; the skydivers figure to collect royalties whenever a network wants to air one of the ubiquitous lists of the world’s 10 most hair-raising or incredible or death-defying escapes. The Miracle 11’s company already is using royalty profits to support aviation and skydiving causes - $1,000 here, $1,000 there - and it even donated money to an anti-suicide cause at Bonogofsky’s request.
But not every outcome has been so rosy.
While Robinson said his heartbeat didn’t elevate during the event, and Sinex said he addressed the crisis in a meticulous form of survival mode, the younger skydivers didn’t escape things so cleanly.
Chandler broke a bone above his ankle to go with his broken rib. He is respectful of the covenant between the skydivers, and bit his tongue about what led to the crash. Around the pizza table, he was the most vocal about the aftermath and the stress of the past year.
“The hardest part has been the loss of personal relationships,” he said, without elaborating further.
Six members of the group have become couples since the crash, including one marriage.
“It has brought some of us closer,” Sinex said, “and pushed others further apart.”
Chandler is the chief pilot for Skydive Superior, but he was enjoying being a skydiver on the day of the crash. He both flew a plane and skydived nine days after the incident; he was edgy, he said, and needed to address his feelings by getting back in the saddle quickly. Before November 2013 was out, he jumped again. That time it was out of a helicopter at the opening of the Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
Robinson said at least some of the others have sought forms of counseling to cope with the emotional aftermath, but said all of the Miracle 11’s skydivers have jumped again.
“Everybody said, 100 percent, we would have jumped the next day,” Sinex said, “but we had no airplane.”
Bonogofsky, though, said she has taken part only in single-plane jumps. She held out a wrist at the table to reveal a remembrance tattoo - she’s one of at least six of the group to get such a tattoo commemorating the crash. Bonogofsky’s includes 11-2-2013 and the registration number of the plane she was perched on at the time of the crash, when she heard the pilot yell, “Go!”
“It’s haunting,” she said.
“These are the most famous skydivers in the world,” Gary Androsky said of the Miracle 11 skydivers.
On the one-year anniversary of the crash that made them that way, the fame doesn’t seem like it’s all that important.
“We don’t really lift up people to be gods of the sport,” Sinex said. “You have to understand skydivers.”
In May, Superior Skydive welcomed a new Cessna into the business, paid for in cash thanks to the pact made by the Miracle 11. As a result, 2014 has been on par with the company’s normal annual business.
“These are very, very giving people,” Androsky said, “and I respect them for it.”
NBC interviews and video from the skydivers