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Single Sky Diver Leaps Before Crash Kills 6 Pilot, Five Other Parachutists Die As Survivor Floats To Ground

Mon., May 26, 1997

Six people on a sky-diving expedition were killed when their one-engine Cessna spiraled out of control and crashed into a potato field Sunday near Homestead General Airport.

One woman wearing a parachute jumped in time to save herself.

The survivor, Carol O’Connell, 43, of southwest Dade County, told police she was outside the plane preparing to jump into calm skies when tragedy struck.

“She was going to be the first to jump and she was standing on the wing,” Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. Robert Suarez said. “For some reason, the plane went out of control. It started spiraling down. She held on, but after one 360-degree turn, she jumped.

“She got out just in time.”

Daryl Martin, president of Biscayne Helicopters, was fishing nearby in a canal about 2 p.m. He looked up when he heard what he thought was a plane with engine trouble. He saw the aircraft plummeting toward the field, about 1,000 yards from the airport.

“It was in a tailspin, and we saw one person jump from the airplane before it went down,” Martin said. He lost sight of the plane behind a barn and heard it hit.

“She was still floating to the ground,” he said of O’Connell.

At the airport, Gabriel Garrastazu and a group of family and friends were taking rides in a relative’s small plane and also enjoying a picnic. He was holding his video camera when those with him pointed at the falling plane. He filmed it.

“Everybody was pointing and saying ‘Look, look, look,”’ he said. “I thought it was going to do a stunt and come back up.”

One of his fellow picnickers, Hermes Oliva, was standing near him as the plane continued down.

“He’s not going to pull out,” he muttered.

“He’s not going to make it. And then, bam, we saw smoke.”

The family members said they felt the ground shake when the plane hit.

They watched O’Connell float to the ground about 50 yards from the crash site, unharmed. The plane had crashed on its underside, not its nose, and the cabin was in flames.

Martin, the fisherman, rushed to the scene with his friend, Jose Suit. A body was hanging from the plane and Suit pulled it from the wreckage, but the person was dead. They didn’t realize it then, because of the extent of the injuries, but the victim was Reed Robbins, 39, a well-known pilot and parachutist with whom they had both worked.

Because of the flames, they could not get to the other bodies.

Oliva, who lives in North Lauderdale, Fla., and works as a firefighter, left the picnic and rushed to the scene with airport personnel.

“We knew everybody was dead from the impact,” he said. “They suffered 20 seconds of terror as they went down. But they died from the impact, not the flames.”

The Cessna was owned by Skydive Miami, based at the airport. The owner of the company, Thomas David Manning, 44, was one of the passengers planning to jump.

“Dave has done all sorts of stuff in sky diving,” Martin said. “He’s done movies and all kinds of stunts. And Reed Robbins was a member of the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army’s elite parachute team. It’s incredible that they died in a routine jump like this.”

According to another acquaintance, George Suarez, 39, who was at the scene, Manning had run the company out of the Homestead, Fla., airport for more than 20 years. Suarez said Manning was married and had a son about 1-year-old.

Martin said it was a “certification jump” for new sky divers and the jump was to have been made from the relatively low altitude of 3,500 feet.

According to Martin, the pilot was Jason Thomas, 25, of Miami Springs, Fla. The other three people who died were not identified, and police sources said dental records will have to be used to make positive identifications.

O’Connell told police she had made 23 prior jumps. She said she knew four of the victims, but that two people she didn’t know climbed aboard shortly before they took off.

The extra two passengers may become an issue.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were at the scene examining the wreckage. The plane was a Cessna Model 210-5. It is certified to carry six passengers.

“We know it had seven people and parachute equipment,” said Jeffrey Kennedy, NTSB air safety investigator. “We will be looking at the weight balance at the time they went out of control.”

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