By Mail Foreign Service
A hero skydiver saved the life of a first-time jumper and suffered paralysing injuries when a parachute failed to open properly.
Dave Hartsock, 44, used himself as a cushion to protect grandmother Shirley Dygert, 54, as they hurtled to the ground, taking the full force of their crash landing.
Courageous Mr Hartsock, who suffered spinal injuries and is now in a wheelchair, has become close friends with Shirley and eternally grateful family.
Fateful flight: Mrs Dygert and Mr Hartsock smile for the camera before the jump that would leave them both with spinal injuries
Chute failure: The pair plummet to the ground with their tangled rig doing little to slow them down Mrs Dygert, a mum of two from Teague, Texas, said: 'He saved me. I would be dead it wasn't for Dave. I had only known him for a few hours but what he did for me is unbelievable. I will never forget it. Never.'
When both the main and reserve shoots failed, Mr Hartsock made the brave decision to position himself underneath Mrs Dygert to try to protect her during the fall.
'Her life was in my hands,' he said. 'I couldn't have lived with myself if anything had happened to her. It was my job to protect her. I did what I had to do, the only thing to do.'
Mrs Dygert had decided to do her first ever parachute jump to celebrate her 54th birthday on August 1 last year.
Her younger son Joe, 30, was in the plane with her, while husband Bill, 56, elder son Will, 32, and her three grandchildren watched from the ground as the terrifying incident occurred.
'It was a spur of the minute thing,' she said. 'My eldest son said it was the most awesome feeling ever so I thought "why not?".
After a morning's training, she was ready to jump out in tandem, 13,000 feet above the plains of Texas.
'Dave was great, he'd explained exactly what was going to happen and I trusted him completely,' she said. 'It was a tiny plane and the door was open so you can see the ground so far below. I was scared but so excited.'
She w3as enjoying amazing views of the countryside below when disaster struck.
When Mr Hartsock pulled the cord to release the parachute, it wouldn't open properly. Tumbling rapidly to the ground, the pair spiralled out of control with the chute flapping uselessly.
He grasped for the cord to expel the worthless shoot but it was trapped between their bodies. As they plummeted, spinning to the ground, the centrifugal force made the cord impossible to reach.
'Our bodies were forced together so tight I couldn't get anywhere near it,' he said. 'Shirley asked me what was happening and I said "hold on, we're in big trouble".'Shirley said: 'I thought: "I am going to die now". 'We were spinning so I had to shut my eyes tight so I wouldn't see the ground rushing towards us.'
Mr Hartsock was left with no choice but to open the reserve chute without releasing the first one. The chute instantly tangled and they continued to plunge, spinning horizontally to the ground.
Knowing they would hit it with back-breaking force, Mr Hartsock made the heroic decision that saved Mrs Dygert's life, but cost him dearly.
He pulled the cords of the pack down to position himself underneath Shirley so his body would break her fall.
'My back hit the ground first and I felt pain rushing through my whole body,' he said. 'I asked Shirley if she was OK and after she replied I must have blacked out.'
Mr Hartsock had a shattered spine and Mrs Dygert had snapped several vertebrae in her neck.
After an operation and a week in intensive care Shirley was released but Dave was left paralysed from the neck down.
'Each time I woke in the hospital I asked where Dave was,' Mrs Dygert said. 'I was so scared he wouldn't make it.' Mr Hartsock remains modest about his sacrifice. 'I just did what I had to do,' he said. 'I don't think I'm a hero.'
After his condition stabilised, the pair arranged to meet for the first time since the horrific accident.
At the start of May 2010 they met at the TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, Texas. 'I cried right away but Dave was cracking jokes and making me laugh,' Mrs Dygert said. Mr Hartsock even suggested they do another skydive together. I said: "Well we're accident proof now baby",' he laughed. 'Pretty unlikely that kind of thing would happen twice.'
Mrs Dygert said: 'People use the word hero liberally these days but Dave is a hero in the truest sense. Without him I would be here to see my grandkids grow up. 'Dave has taught me to give unselfishly and freely because at the end of the day it does matter.'
To make a donation to help with Dave's care go to www.giveforward.org/hartsock/.