Monday, September 6, 2010

For hang-gliding instructor, tragedy strikes again

Marvin Trudeau, a former lumberjack sports champion, died following a hang-gliding accident in August.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 6, 2010


Marvin Trudeau spent his working life in treetops. For the past year, he spent his spare time leaping from mountaintops.

As a young man, the faller competed on the lumberjack sports circuit, most famously winning a world championship in tree climbing in 1977 by scaling a 100-foot spar pole and returning to earth in a record time of 31.08 seconds.

He got his name in the Guinness World Records book and the event was featured on ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Newspapers called him “a speedy spar scaler.”

For the past 30 years, he has owned Aerial Tree Service in Chemainus.

When not on the job, he liked to skydive, completing more than 1,250 jumps.

A year ago, he took up hang gliding.

On Aug. 18, the 60-year-old man took off from atop Mount Maxwell on Salt Spring Island.

He crashed. It took rescue crews four hours to evacuate the unconscious man. He was airlifted to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, where he remained in a coma until dying eight days later.

Friends and family gathered Sunday afternoon at the Crofton home of Brian and Doreen Knight to bid adieu.

One of the first arrivals was Steve Parson, a certified hang-gliding instructor who operates Hang Glide Vancouver Island. Mr. Parson said he was atop the mountain as his pupil took off on a solo flight.

“He disappeared around the side of the mountain to where the big cliffs were,” he said. “He went exploring a little bit where he shouldn’t have.”

Mr. Parson had been a regular at the hospital vigil, bringing chocolates to those who gathered. At yesterday’s celebration of life he showed mourners video of Mr. Trudeau’s inaugural flight. The unfortunate man had crashed during his sixth lesson.

Asked how he felt, Mr. Parson replied, “Completely gut busted. It’s a horrible thing.”

There is no investigation under way into Mr. Trudeau’s death and there is nothing to suggest that Mr. Parson, as his instructor, was responsible.

It was not the first time he had lost a student.

Mr. Parson has been hang gliding since 1994, becoming an instructor six years later. It was his custom then to spend the Canadian offseason working in New Zealand.

On March 29, 2003, a 23-year-old Greek tourist named Eleni Zeri, a recent civil engineering graduate, joined other adventurers in paying for a tandem hang-gliding flight. She was paired with Mr. Parson.

They launched from a site on the Remarkables mountain range, according to press accounts of the subsequent trial. It was almost immediately clear something had gone wrong.

The student’s harness was not attached to the glider, so she was hanging only by her hands. Mr. Parson tried to wrap his legs around her, trial was told, but the actions caused the glider to spiral.

After less than a minute, she lost her grip, falling — silently — some 200 meters to her death.

The Canadian pilot was charged with manslaughter for not having attached her carabiner, a metal loop with a catch, an oversight that should have been caught in the pre-flight safety check.

The trial included video testimony from a witness who had returned to the United States, as well as a visit to the launch site.

Among those attending the trial was Eirini Zeri, of Athens, a mother who had lost her only child.

On the fourth day, Mr. Parson changed his plea.

He addressed the grieving mother in court, saying, “I know that you miss Eleni terribly. She was your life. I need you to know I also have a hole in my heart. Eleni was very brave. I’m so very, very sorry.”

Court was told the accident was doubly tragic as a promising young woman had died and a distraught man had lost his livelihood, according to press reports.

Mr. Parson was sentenced to 350 hours of community service and ordered to pay NZ$10,000 ($8,450 Canadian) in reparations to the mother for manslaughter. He had faced up to 10 years in jail.

He completed his service by clipping newspaper articles for a local library.

His departure from Queenstown for Canada was also noted by a local newspaper.

When reached by telephone at the site of the memorial service for Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Parson refused to talk about the death in New Zealand. Nor would he talk about how it was possible to be a certified instructor with the Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association of Canada when he had a manslaughter conviction on his record.

“I’ve got to get on with my life and live with myself for mistakes I may have made,” he said.

He added, “We’re defying gravity. The more you do it the more the chances something could happen.”

Mr. Parson’s website makes no mention of the New Zealand accident. It does include the promise of “careful pre-flight instruction from Steve.” The business is also featured on tourism and adventure sport websites. Last month, a few days before the latest accident, the Cowichan News Leader ran a glowing profile of Mr. Parson’s business under the headline, Let your dreams take flight.

By coincidence, while Mr. Trudeau was in a coma in hospital, the Civil Aviation Authority in New Zealand announced tougher regulations for hang-glider operators. The pending rule change was triggered by the terrible death seven ears ago of a young Greek tourist.

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