LES SILLARS, HOST: Early one afternoon last March I was driving down a narrow, winding road in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was snowing pretty hard. There was a stiff wind and a lot of slush on the road. But I wasn’t worried. Our truck had four-wheel drive. I liked that little truck. Chevy Colorado. Leather seats. Sport package.
But as I approached a curve, suddenly an old Hyundai came sliding into view around the corner from the other direction. Way too fast. His back end flew out over the shoulder. But somehow the young driver pulled it back. Then it slung across to the other side of the road and came fishtailing straight toward me.
I took my foot off the gas but I didn’t dare stomp on the brakes. I was afraid of going sideways myself. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t turn. I couldn’t believe it. I was thinking, “Oh, man. Here it comes.”
Yeah. Head-on collision. I went from about 35 miles an hour to a dead stop. The impact slammed my truck sideways into the ditch. Completely crushed my front end. His car was a mangled mess on the road.
But a few minutes later we both climbed out. Basically unhurt. My neck was a bit stiff for a few days. That was it. I became a big believer in air bags. The high school kid who hit me now mows my lawn.
Some problems sneak up on you. Suddenly–pow! You’re on your back. No idea what happened. But other problems you can see coming from a long way off. They come rushing up, faster and faster. You desperately want to get out of the way. But you can’t.
JAMES BUSCH: The emotions of the moment just kind of overwhelm you—you’re just kind of along for the ride.
This is James Busch. In 1999 he was a cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He too found himself in a situation where he could just see it coming. And there was nothing he could do about it.
JAMES BUSCH: Definitely just sheer terror knowing the impending catastrophe that’s about to happen.
I’m Les Sillars, and this is Doubletake. Busch’s story is the second in our series of Singletakes. Shorter stories told by just one person. Abi Churchill will take it from here.
ABI CHURCHILL, REPORTER: April 12th was a crisp day in the Colorado mountains. James Busch headed down to the airfield at 5 a.m. for a nice Saturday morning of practice jumps.
BUSCH: The parachute team is definitely one of those institutions at the Academy that’s pretty highly, highly respected. We competed in parachute competitions and did demonstrations, jumped into football games and air shows and NASCAR races and stuff like that. We’re getting ready for a big competition in Europe actually, so we were going to do some practice formation skydiving.
Life is good. There’s the competition in Spain to look forward to. Then graduating and getting commissioned into the Air Force. Then marrying his high school sweetheart, Anela. He’s president of his class. A natural leader. A seasoned skydiver.
BUSCH: You know it’s not a comfortable thing at all to jump out of an airplane. But over time, you know, 600 plus jumps, to be honest it becomes very routine. To hang outside of an airplane and to jump and to do crazy stuff in the air, it just becomes a normal part of your life.
BUSCH: It can be hard to find adrenaline rushes and enjoyments—I remember going to, like, theme parks during those days and going on roller coasters and everyone’s screaming their heads off and I’m like, “What is the big deal. This is so boring and lame.”
But he’s not at a theme park today. He’s on a military airplane about to make a training jump with his partner. Six thousand feet above the Air Force Academy.
BUSCH: So me and my buddy, Matt Philips, we jump out, we make our planned formations. So we’re in freefall for, you know, 10 or 15 seconds before we track away and deploy our parachutes. So, pretty routine. And pretty easy in terms of difficulty. So my stress level was definitely, definitely low.
Routine. Nothing to worry about. But then his main parachute doesn’t open. He looks up.
BUSCH: So, we have a small, handheld drogue chute that we throw into the wind and that’s what creates the drag to pull out the main parachute. So the drogue chute was deployed but it was tied in a knot. And it was thus not creating enough drag to deploy the main parachute.
There’s no need to panic. Busch knows what to do. He pulls the breakaway handle that should disconnect his main parachute from his pack. Then he deploys his reserve. Reserves are designed to spring open forcefully in case you’re close to the ground.
BUSCH: That is not what occurred. It was a very slow opening and in the meantime I’m getting closer and closer and closer to the ground, obviously, as all this is going on. I look up and I have, my main has failed to break away and is wrapped around my reserve. So initially the reserve was more or less open, and then very quickly my main kind of loops around it and collapses the reserve parachute, and I go into just kind of a spiraling dive.
He sounds pretty matter of fact about it now, but you have to put yourself in his jumpsuit. You just jumped out of a plane well over a mile above the ground. Now you’re falling. Neither of your parachutes are working. And you’re watching the ground rush up faster and faster.
BUSCH: It was truly the most terrifying point in my life as I approached the ground at that speed knowing that this, this is going to be bad.
And then—it gets worse.
BUSCH: I’m gonna land, and I realize I’m right over the top of the big four-lane highway that leads into the Air Force Academy. And it’s a busy Saturday morning as everyone’s, you know, leaving base and I’m just seeing cars go underneath my feet.
Now he has another collision to worry about. He’s about to have one shattering impact. Even if by some miracle he survives that, he’s likely to be run over by a car going 55 miles an hour.
BUSCH: I had about enough time to take one more look up to see if there was anything I can do to improve the situation with the canopy and it was very obvious that it was just kind of a tangled mass of canopy and lines and there wasn’t going to be time to really troubleshoot that any further.
Busch isn’t the only one who sees the problem coming. As he falls that last several hundred feet, a weatherman driving into work on the base sees him plummeting out of the sky. He realizes Busch is going to hit the road right in front of him. So he slams on the brakes.
BUSCH: He basically skidded his car to block traffic you know like James Bond style, you know, slid his car sideways to block both lanes of traffic …
Busch keeps falling.
BUSCH: And I can see now the ground as I got closer kind of starting to rush up and I knew that I was going to hit the ground really really hard. So I just kinda had a moment to whisper a little prayer … in a very panicked voice, “Dear God please help me.” And then I hit the ground.
Skydivers are taught how to land when your chute fails. You tuck your arms over your chest, lock your legs together, and bend your knees. The idea is to land on the side of your foot and turn yourself into a massive rocker. That’s the theory at least.
It works. Busch hits the ground and his body rocks sideways so hard that he actually pops a few feet back up into the air. Then lands on the pavement. Just missing that car screeching to a stop.
BUSCH: And I landed, 10 feet? Maybe? In front of his front bumper. You know, here’s just a moment where I was completely stunned and as you kind of as you kind of come to or you know as your senses kind of slowly come back, you know, there was definitely amazement, like, “Wow. I’m still alive. This is unbelievable. I can’t believe it, I’m still alive!”
I remember, kind of in my subconscious, just hearing screeching tires in the background and thinking to myself that I’ve got to get myself out of the, out of the road as quickly as possible. But I was totally incapable of moving. So I had kind of a ringing in my ears and I don’t believe I ever fully lost consciousness but you know now I’m just kind of laying in the road on my side, looking and trying with all my might to move and finding that I can’t move anything.
You know, pretty traumatic for him and the other cars to see this whole thing transpire because they said I bounced about, you know, four to five feet off the asphalt.
As the minutes went by I could start to kind of move my fingers and toes and my mobility kind of came back. So I think kind of just the initial shock of hitting the ground that hard was just, my whole nervous system was kind of in revolt like “What have you done to me?”
An ambulance arrives. The EMTs strap him to a board.
BUSCH: … took me straight downtown to the big Colorado Springs hospital emergency room. It was the fastest drive across town I’ve ever had, obviously, lights and sirens a’blazing. Pretty cool. Pretty cool way to get across town …
The hospital did X-rays and CAT scans, trying to figure out how bad the damage was. Busch lay on his back for hours, waiting to hear the news.
BUSCH: There’s obviously a lot of thoughts going through your head on what your future’s going to be when you’re laying there you know. All the sudden all the things that seemed very firm and deliberate in your life are all all the sudden up in the air.
So to speak. His wedding. His graduation. His career. He didn’t know what any of it would look like anymore.
BUSCH: You’re just laying staring up at the hospital room with your thoughts and a couple of buddies around trying to keep you cheered up but not trying to make you laugh too much because it hurts to laugh, you know.
After extensive prognosis, MRIs, and CAT scans, they found five cracked vertebrae, but all of the fractures were stable so my vertebrae were intact. Then they came in and said “hey, you know, you can get up.” It was like Lazarus. Back from the dead!
Oh, I could get up and walk around. I remember that being a very emotional moment for me. You know, I could get back on my feet. Not something that I expected that day.
The doctors, you know, the big thing for them was they just couldn’t believe that my back was able to absorb that much shock, to crack five vertebrae, yet the spine never buckled, you know, there was never any pieces or further damage to the spine itself and even more miraculously that there was nothing in the lower extremities. You know, absorb that much force on my spine, and yet nothing, nothing snapped in the hips or legs or anywhere else.
You know, it’s clear to me, but for anyone who, I would say, the skeptics out there who would question, that’s kind of the evidence that I would purport to say: It’s pretty hard to explain how all that, all that could happen without some divine intervention.
James Busch isn’t the first to survive a long fall.
In 2006, New Zealander Michael Holmes’s parachutes had the same malfunction. The landing onto a six-foot bush collapsed his right lung and shattered his left ankle. He spent days in the hospital, pumped full of morphine and swollen to twice his normal size.
In 1997, Carol Murray Rodriguez’s parachute collapsed during a jump near Bradford, Ontario. She hit the ground at 55 miles an hour. Her right femur broke and ripped through her leg. She also broke her pelvis, chipped some vertebrae, broke ribs, and punctured a lung. She lived—with the help of 25 surgeries.
Busch’s old teammate at the Academy, Mick Boeing, fell 50 feet when his canopy caught some turbulence coming off a nearby building and collapsed. He had an L4 burst fracture. Here’s Boeing.
BOEING: So essentially what that means is that that vertebrae had burst into thousands of pieces and if you looked at an X-ray it literally looked like I didn’t have a vertebrae where there should have been one. It’s just like it was missing.
Boeing spent almost a week in the hospital and had to have his spine pieced back together in a 12 hour surgery. He was still at home recovering when he heard about Busch’s fall.
Busch, on the other hand, plummeted 6,000 feet in near freefall, landed on asphalt, and walked out of the hospital the same day.
He was injured, of course.
BUSCH: Although there was no, you know, fractures or nervous system damage or things like that, I was you, know purple, from head to toe, like the worst bruising on my torso that you can imagine and swelling for days.
I’m an inch and a half shorter than I used to be, so if you look at my height on the uh my physical when I entered the academy, I was 5’ 11” and now I’m 5’ 9” and a half.
But other than that, you know, by the grace of God, no other lasting effects.
Busch eventually got a waiver from the commandant at the Air Force Academy and graduated with his class. But his injuries still disqualified him from ever flying fighters. He spent six months in a brace and a year in rehab.
BUSCH: I did a lot of yoga, actually. Felt great.
Eight months after his jump, he ran a half marathon.
BUSCH: I was trying to build my case because I knew it was going to be a struggle with the Air Force to get my pilot qualifications back.
But he did.
BUSCH: I ended up getting an exception to policy from the Chief of Staff in the Air Force, which is something that almost never happens, to go to pilot training and to become an Air Force pilot and to be able to do that for 22 years.
He went on to fly fighters. He deployed to Iraq, Guam, Poland, and Turkey.
BUSCH: You know, pulling 9 Gs in an F-16, something that gives people back and neck problems, as a guy with a previously broken back, that’s no small miracle and blessing to be able to have that experience.
He married Anela. They have two daughters. And after he retired he became a commercial pilot.
BUSCH: I’m thankful for my whole life. I’m thankful for all the things—the trials, the good times, the bad times. Everything you go through, it’s what makes people who they are. It’s what makes me who I am. It’s what makes you who you are.
Sometimes, you can see the problems coming from a long way off. What you can’t see is how God is going to work.
SILLARS: This Singletake was reported and written by Abi Churchill. Season 2 of Doubletake is on the way. Follow us on your favorite podcast app so you’ll get the next full season–and all our Singletakes–as soon as the episodes come out. And send us a note. Doubletake@wng-dot-org. We’d love to hear from you. I’m Les Sillars. We’ll see you next time.
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