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BASE Jumping: Articles: Stories: The Open Sarcophagus

The Open Sarcophagus updated

by rob price

The Open Sarcophagus: Jumping with Broken Jo Stanley

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jumping fool's point
September 10, 2005

It’s a hot, late-summer afternoon. A two-seat glider lies crumpled and twisted in a farmer’s field north of Toronto. Inside the wreckage are two men who love to fly. One is a legend.

At that time, 40 miles away, I am taking passengers for their first parachute flights. That evening I hear news of a crash, but its significance escapes me. By morning, however, I turn on the computer, and it is confirmed. Stories bubble up to the surface of my consciousness.

April, 1985

Bonnie’s hair smelled of smoke from the bar. My eyes stung from the clouds that had swirled over the dance floor. The alarm clock hadn’t woken me.


“What?” Bonnie asked.

“Jo should have been here at 5:00.” Dressing, I swung the parachute onto my back and we walked to the curb. The sun hadn’t yet broken the horizon.

Beside Bonnie’s pickup I looked up and down the road. No sign of Jo. I leaned against the tailgate, tired, but happy-tired. Bonnie leaned against me and I folded my arms around her. “Looks like I won’t be going after all,” I murmured, laying my cheek against her hair. A car geared down loudly and swung around the corner. Jo pulled up, reaching across to open the passenger door. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I slept in!”


I stood motionless on the metal rungs, watching my friends drive away down the road. The cop car sat in the laneway. Invisible in our steel spider web, knowing that sound carries in the night, I couldn’t climb further until he left. The parachute was a dead weight on my shoulders. Headlights entered the street, winking out a few driveways away. Our cop sped off, and I started up again. Above me, I knew Steve was moving too.

Minutes later tires crunched along the gravel road. Jo’s car appeared before the tower – no headlights – followed by Bonnie. Doors slammed.


“Yeah?” Steve’s voice drifted down.

“If you’re ready you better jump before the cops come back!”

At that lights flashed and a siren wailed. A cruiser – unseen, a few driveways down – pulled onto the road and came toward us. “They’re getting smarter,” I thought. Jo approached the driver’s door, and the loudspeaker crackled to life.

“Now you’ve gone to the trouble of getting up there, why don’t you come down and we’ll have a little chat?” I sat on the tower, not moving, 150 feet below the top. “THWACK!” Steve’s parachute opened up level with me, about 30 feet out from the structure. He flew away from the steel and hooked under the guy wire to land beside the road. Jo walked out to him. I continued to climb.

Early June

Red Deer, Alberta, the CRW Nationals, 1988. We were battling it out with the Plaid Jackets. We’d scored 10,9,10 and 8 points – but a wrap on our last jump had stopped us scoring. We needed a good round to stay in the running.

The 6th started well. Jo and Robbie got together fast, and I moved in behind Martin as he lined up. As soon as I contacted Martin Jo kicked his feet out and floated up above Robbie’s canopy, burying his toggles to stall back and recover, dropping down through the burble to hit me on the bottom some 7 or 8 seconds later.

“Four!” I screamed, sticking my feet in Jo’s risers, and Robbie dropped his grip, floating and dropping down the ‘elevator’. As he hit Jo, at about 5000 feet, he pushed the bottom of the stack forward. Martin, on top, already had on about ½ brakes, holding us pretty much straight up, and as Robbie pushed the bottom forward, all hell broke loose as the 4-stack ‘stalled’ out of the sky.

I felt Martin bounce off my head and shoulders and fall off to the side through my lines. I dropped and hit Jo, slipping behind him. The parachutes stopped flying, becoming a twisted mass of nylon.

Robbie was hanging off the bottom, his parachute collapsed but with no lines around his body. We told him to cutaway just to have one person less in the mess. He did about an 8-second delay after chopping, and 5 seconds after that the three of us caught up to him again and passed him, still a mess of nylon.

Martin wanted me to get clear before chopping his own main but I was engulfed in lines so he cutaway, leaving Jo and I wrapped. By now we’d spread out, at times in a gentle rotation as the parachutes got into synch, then speeding up like a carnival ride as they began fighting each other again.

“Can you get out?” Jo asked, as I tried for the thousandth time to get the lines from around my body.

“I’m trying,” I yelled back, but as fast as I got some lines off my arms or legs, more grabbed on. The ground was coming up rapidly. It looked like we were over a pig farm. ‘Not fast enough to kill me,’ I thought, ‘but I probably won’t be walking away.’

I continued trying to get out of the lines. Jo called, “I gotta go, man! We’re running out of time here! Can you get out?”

I checked my altimeter. 1400 feet. I was in deep doodoo.

“Go for it!” I yelled. “Chop!”

Jo’s body flung off to the side as he left, then fell away below. As he dropped his main pulled out of my lines and my canopy re-inflated. The weight of Robbie’s canopy wrapped around Jo’s lines kept his parachute inflated as it began a slow spiral to the ground. Martin’s canopy had wrapped my lines and risers so tight my toggles were useless, but I was able to steer, reaching above and pulling down on a handful of lines. With no time to pick and choose I came in for a fast landing between the barnyard and the farmhouse, picking my feet up to clear a fence. As I stood and turned to look for the others, Jo’s main landed alone 300 feet away.

Late June

Jo stretched out his arm, clutching the pilot chute.

“Gear check!” he demanded. I gazed down the sheer wall beneath Fool’s Point. There was a tour boat below, passengers searching for pictographs.

“There’s a boat,” I said. “Let it move on.”

“That’s why I want it NOW!” he retorted. I checked his pin and slapped the flap.

“Ready,” I said.

Jo stepped up to the precipice and leaned out, waving at the boat three hundred feet below.

“Hey! Up here!”

White faces rotating skyward, Jo curled his toes over the edge of the cliff and leapt into space. “One thousand, two thousand…CRACK!” The parachute’s opening echoed off the monolith, and Jo glided toward the boat. Tourists gaped. Jaws dropped; shutters clicked.

I shook my head and smiled, asking Steve to check my gear.

Canada Day, July 1st

We rose early, and by 7 a.m. the Twin Beech was ready. The night before Jo and I had briefed people in the Boar’s Breath, the skydiver’s bar, and everybody knew their job. I looked around – everyone seemed focused, or maybe just numb from the partying last night.

I sat below the kill line, a black line drawn around the inside of the cabin near the doorway. If we had an engine failure after takeoff, anyone sitting behind the black line was supposed to immediately jump out, fixing the weight and balance, and the plane would magically become flyable. If it ever happened, I’d be madly scrambling to the other side of the line, not jumping out the door at 50 feet.

We exited, opening right away. As the first ones out maneuvered into position, I stayed high to observe. They flew beside each other and side-slipped together, the top man grabbing the lower parachute and tucking his legs into the lines, sliding down to the risers just above the bottom jumper’s head. With the first two together it was a matter of sliding in behind and below, putting on brakes to float into the bottom man, who quickly put his feet in. The height of the formation grew as the 4th, 5th and 6th person flew in. As each arrived, the formation became heavier, sinking faster out of the sky.

As the 7th man docked I realized it would soon be my turn. Everyone else was in position while I was still high. I grabbed my risers to pull into a steep dive and carved a 360 to bring myself behind and lower. Once there I was still high, so I continued front-risering left and right to get into position.

By this time Jo’s silver and blue canopy had docked and Larry was on approach. My arms burned from pulling the risers down, and I knew if I let go I’d never get into position. I lined up behind Larry, still high, as he floated up at Jo. Mentally I screamed at him – “Faster, Larry! Faster!”

Larry docked and Jo started down his lines. He struggled to lift Larry’s weight.

“Incoming!” I screamed, dropping the fronts.

My parachute flared out and hit Larry’s legs as I grabbed brakes to slow down. I heard Jo’s astonished cry as I swept up and my momentum pushed us in front of the stack. I was lying on my back looking up at the faces of ten glorious jumpers, before we swung back into position and Jo resumed his climb down the lines.

I sat at the bottom, my parachute against Larry’s back, and that was it – a new Canadian record canopy formation over a hundred feet high.

After July

McDonald’s was busy. “Ready?” Jo asked. I nodded, nervous. In fact, I’d had a couple of beers to calm myself. But I was set.

“One thing,” I said. “Here’s Bonnie’s number. Just in case….”

Jo looked at me and shrugged as he took it. “Ah, you’ll be fine.”

We waited in front of the building, hockey bags slung over our shoulders. As someone came out we grabbed the open door and walked through. Passing the security desk I heard someone coming in behind us. The guard stopped him.

“I’m sorry, sir. Do you have business here?”

We pressed the elevator button and slid inside, holding our breath. Above the 44th floor we entered the stairwell, donning our gear and inspecting each other. On the roof, I looked down. Our van sat still by the curb. A tractor-trailer was parked there, bisecting our landing area. It looked tight. Atop the perimeter wall, I looked over the lights of downtown Hamilton – “This is it... 3,2,1, c-ya!”

The noise of the parachute opening reverberated through the air as I turned and flew across the front of the building. To my left scattered groups of people smoked on their balconies. Someone hollered and started clapping. Setting up above the parking lot, I began a steep approach. On the sidewalk a drunk staggered along, pacing me.

“Heads up!” I called. His face swiveled in the light of the streetlamps, eyes opening wide. At the last second I accelerated, flaring to land beside the truck, almost hitting it. As I gathered my chute Jo touched down, and we ran for the van.

The door scarcely closed before Steve drove off.

“All right!” Jo exclaimed.

“Another BASE buddy to play with!” We high-fived in the back of the van, stuffing our rigs into bags.

That weekend the building ran a full-page ad in the Spectator: “Daredevil Skydivers Leap Off Our Building!

You can land on the second floor for $XXX/square foot!” “Yeah,” I thought as I read it. “No charge for the PR, guys!”

Early August, 1986

As we exited the lobby of the building and crossed the parking lot, Jo came over.

“What’s wrong?”

“The door won’t open,” I answered. “It won’t budge.”

I was sweating under my suit and tie. The wine from the ballroom churned in my stomach.

“You know it doesn’t push up,” he said. “It’s a sliding door.”

“Oh….” I looked at Nancy, sheepish. “Want to try again?”

She nodded and we headed back into the lobby.

In the stairwell I geared up, then asked Nance if she was ready. She was going to take pictures as I jumped. With the door alarmed, we couldn’t waste any time. Nance had to get back down the stairwell and into the corridor before the security guards reached the 40th floor.

She reached over to squeeze my arm and peck my cheek. “Love ya, Pup!” she said. I grinned, winking.

Sliding the hatch open I stepped onto the roof, making my way to the southwest corner. In Nathan Phillips Square they were filming ‘Night Heat’. Fake police cars lined the street. I tossed a streamer of colored paper off the roof and watched it float away. A hundred and fifty feet below us, it blew back into the side of the building. Damn. This is the only corner we can use. I looked over at Nance. She nodded, ready.

I leant forward and jumped into the night.

The parachute opened with a 90 left and tried to turn into the building. I pulled it off, and it tried again before flying straight. Below on a rooftop was a lighted swimming pool, gleaming yellow and blue. I turned away from it and lined up on the parking lot, hooking to land running between rows of cars.

Jo pulled up beside me, reaching across to open the passenger door.

Late August, 2004

I arrived at Skydive Burnaby near Niagara Falls for a new Canadian record freefall formation. Some of the best skydivers in Canada had shown up to throw themselves out of three Canadian-made Twin Otters in an attempt to join up. I hadn’t seen Jo for years, but he was the first person to catch my eye as I entered the parking lot. Jo hadn’t jumped in some time, but he borrowed a rig and went up for a recurrency jump. After that leap you wouldn’t have known he’d been away. By this time he had over 7000 parachute jumps.

That evening we renewed our friendship over dinner. Jo talked of his new passion in life – gliding. He’d found challenge and happiness in it, participating in competitions both as a competitor and as a ‘marker’, someone who went ahead to search for thermals on the course and ‘mark’ them for the other competitors. He and a friend were buying a fixed-wing glider, modifying it for better performance.

After eight jumps we had the Canadian formation skydiving record – 56 people joined together in the sky. As we reviewed the video and the judges confirmed an official Canadian record, everyone whooped and high-fived. I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see Jo alive.

September, 2005

I stood on the road smoking, looking at the crumpled sailplane. They’d removed the wings and were hoisting the twisted fuselage onto a flatbed. Without wings, cockpit gaping wide, it resembled a sarcophagus. I felt like a grave robber staring at an ancient tomb. The opening told me the treasure was gone, stolen by some long-forgotten thief. The crash wagon had left with Jo’s body.

Smoke tasted bitter in my throat and I threw the cigarette down on the road, grinding it underfoot.

I glanced at Martin. “What was it?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“You’re right,” I answered myself. “It could have been a thousand things.”

The flatbed drove off across the field. My eyes stung.

June, 2006

“That article in Canpara magazine was pretty good,” said Tana, as we headed into the hangar for yet another briefing on a Canadian large formation record attempt. “The one about Jo.”

“Thanks. It wasn’t an easy article to write.”

“Too bad he’s not here now,” she said, looking around at the crowd.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Yeah, I was thinking about that on the drive down, too….” I blinked a couple of times and looked away, embarrassed.

Tana noticed and put her hand on my arm.

“You know, I think he might be up there watching us right now,” she said, smiling. I nodded, looking down and starting to fiddle with my equipment. Nine jumps later we had a new Canadian record.

© Rob Price

Submitted by rob price on 2010-02-14 | Last Modified by skypuppy on 2010-03-08

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