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Photo: Courtesy of Dave Hartsock

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The Man Who Used His Own Body as a Crash Pad
In 2009, veteran Texas skydiving instructor Dave Hartsock was in the middle of a 13,000-feet-high tandem jump with Shirley Dygert, a grandmother and first-time diver, when he discovered that neither of his two parachutes would open all the way to stop their free fall. Red alerts screamed through his brain as he struggled to untangle the parachute lines. They fell thousands of feet, then a few thousand more. With just seconds left to go before impact, Hartsock opted to use control toggles to rotate his body so that he'd cushion Dygert, absorbing the brunt of the force when the two of them hit the ground.

Hartsock's quick thinking saved Dygert's life. While she sustained some injuries, she recovered and is able to function normally. But Hartsock paid a monumental price. The fall paralyzed him from the neck down, most likely permanently, and he now needs help to do things as basic as getting dressed or taking a bath. Dygert, who has kept in touch with Hartsock since the accident, sometimes tears up when she thinks about what a sacrifice her instructor made for her, saying, "How can somebody have that much love for another person?"

Would Hartsock have made the same heroic choice if he'd known what was going to happen to him? Absolutely, he says. "When people do a tandem, they don't know about body position—they're just looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Shirley sure didn't know how to do it without hurting herself. Better me than her."