'I'm never gonna jump again': Waterloo man recalls brush with death after parachute fails

News-DemocratFebruary 3, 2014 

Five months after his accident, Tim Sumpter can recall looking up as his parachute began to open, right before he crashed into the Snake River in Idaho at 80 plus mph during a jump from a bridge.

But at the time, all the Waterloo man remembered was a lot of bubbles underwater and then being hauled onto a pontoon boat.

That's understandable. He was in a coma for the next 17 days with injuries that included a pelvis torn in half, two broken shoulders, broken vertebrae, a shattered tailbone and a whole lot of trauma.

Now, amazingly, he is fine, although quite a bit achy, and back at work as a senior software engineer at Jet Aviation St. Louis at St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia.

Sumpter is still in physical therapy twice a week with hopes of getting back on the ski slopes next winter.

But after 22 years, he has given up flinging himself off bridges, buildings and other tall objects.

"I love you. I'm never gonna jump again," was the first thing he told his wife, Theresa, after he finally woke up in the hospital in Boise, Idaho.

Sumpter is what's known as a BASE jumper, which stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth, all things people like to jump from. It usually starts with a love of skydiving and grows from there.

For Sumpter, jumping off things was a hobby.

He said he probably had about eight broken bones in various places from jumping accidents in his career.

"Now I have 21," he said. "Luckily there was no brain trauma, but I still get tired. I'm healed. It just aches."

Sumpter is 46 but said he sometimes feels about 80.

His BASE jumping love all started with a TV show.

"Back in the 1980s, I saw some guys on MTV jumping off the Twin Towers in New York City. I said that looks great. Guys could throw themselves off something and safely land -- mostly."

So he went to the airport in Sparta and took skydiving lessons.

After 25 jumps he went to West Virginia and did his first BASE jump.

He said he never thought about dying. He just knew he felt really alive while jumping -- until last Aug. 31, Labor Day weekend. He was jumping off the bridge that spans the Snake River in Idaho, the same area where daredevil Evel Knievel unsuccessfully tried to jump the river on a rocket-propelled motorcycle.

"Eight hundred fifty jumps later, I guess the Lord said, 'In order to make Tim stop, I'm gonna have to really, really mess him up.'" Sumpter said.

It was his third jump of the day, around 5:30 p.m., and started normally. But somehow the strap on the bag holding his pilot chute, which was supposed to open his main chute, became tangled on his arm and didn't deploy.

He said he had about six seconds between jumping and hitting the water, 486 feet below. Normally his chute would have popped open and he would have had 15-20 seconds to fly around before landing on the beach.

About four seconds into his jump he saw the problem and had just enough time to fix the strap and see the pilot chute start to unfold.

He said he now can remember details from the jump. He hit the water, which was only about 4 1/2 feet deep, feet first. His tailbone probably hit on the bottom of the river.

Luckily, a boat was nearby and came to his rescue. Apparently he was hard to miss.

"People there said it sounded like a Magnum (handgun) going off when I hit the water," he said.

Even luckier, a nurse floated by in another boat and took charge, making sure his head was secured so he wasn't paralyzed.

He was taken to a regional hospital and then flown by helicopter to Boise. He had internal bleeding, which led to cardiac arrest.

"It was the worst pain of my life," he said.

His wife flew out the next day and stayed with him for four weeks.

Other family members came out and stayed as well, including his son, Bradley, stepson, David, and stepdaughter, Caiti.

He said the doctors had to make his wife take breaks and get away from him. But he was grateful for the company, and the love, which he said had a lot to do with his quick recovery.

After quite a bit of healing, his employer, Jet Aviation, flew him and his family back to St. Louis.

Sumpter said he reflects often on that day and whether it had a deeper purpose.

"Eighty percent of people with traumatic pelvic injuries die," he said. "I should have died that day. Do I have another purpose in life?

"I mean, I'm blessed. I'm happy for a second half in my life. I hope to make a difference somehow."

But not with a parachute strapped to his back.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service